‘I had 52 PCR and antigen tests, all negative—you can reduce your risk of infection’

World specialist says that while ‘we are still in acute stage of pandemic’…. ‘we have all the tools we need now’

Art by Noel Avendano

“Vaccine inequity is the world’s biggest obstacle to ending this pandemic.”

So declares Dr. Melvin Sanicas, a leading figure in COVID-19 discussions worldwide. Still, the Zurich-based Filipino specialist in vaccines, infectious diseases, and global health believes that we are not as helpless as we were a year ago. “We have all the tools we need now. We just need to use them efficiently and equitably.”

Dr. Sanicas earned his medical degree from the University of the Philippines Manila, and pursued postgraduate degrees in Vaccinology and Pharmaceutical Clinical Development (Università di Siena, Italy), Infectious Diseases (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK), Health Economics (University of Aberdeen, UK), Clinical Risk Management (University of Leeds, UK), and public leadership (Harvard Kennedy School, US). He was also a Gates Fellow in Global Health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington.

Dr. Sanicas wrote for last year, Vaccine Development—from 10 years to 10 months—how did that happen?,  and Vaccines: Why don’t you listen to science? 

Here, he answers more questions from on the latest surge.

Did you or your colleagues expect this renewed wave of infections?

Yes. With less restrictions or no restrictions in some places, people not wearing masks properly, colder temperature (people stay indoors more), and holiday gatherings, a new wave of infections was expected.

How do you explain the growing incidence of breakthrough infections even as people get vaccinated?

The vaccines were created to prevent serious disease, hospitalization, and death.

Is the current world data on new cases a cause for grave concern?

Yes, because uncontrolled transmission means more infections, more mutations, and more chances for new variants to emerge. During the week of 27 December 2021 to 2 January 2022, following a gradual increase since October, the global number of new cases increased sharply by 71 percent as compared to the previous week, while the number of new deaths decreased by 10 percent.

Do we have a good rate of vaccination? In the world? In the Philippines?

Around 59.5 percent of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But vaccine inequity is the world’s biggest obstacle to ending this pandemic. Most of the rich countries have vaccinated 70 percent of their population, while some of the low-income countries have not vaccinated even 10 percent of their population; 9.5 billion doses have been administered globally, but most of these vaccines have been given as primary vaccination and boosters in high-income countries.

In the Philippines, we have fully vaccinated 48 percent of the population. With this rate, we will be able to reach World Health Organization’s (WHO) target of 70 percent of the population by mid-2022.

What can a vaccinated person do to avoid infection?

The same public health recommendations that we have been hearing for almost two years now. Wear a mask (N95, KN95 and medical masks are much better than cloth masks), wash hands frequently, open windows, improve ventilation, and maintain physical distance. In 2021 alone, I had a total of 52 PCR and antigen tests, all negative, and I traveled internationally for work and non-work reasons. It can be done if you are serious about doing everything you can to reduce your risk of infection.

YouTube videos, blogs, and Facebook posts are not scientific evidence 

Again, for those who don’t read or are misled by fake news, please explain briefly the role of vaccines in this fight against COVID, the fallacies being spread. There are still those who believe that taking supplements (like Ivermectin) can take the place of vaccination. Then there are those who believe that, given the side effects of vaccines, these further weaken their immune system.

The burden of proof is always on the person who is making a claim. Where is the proof of all these claims? YouTube videos, blogs, and Facebook posts are not scientific evidence. People should be more internet savvy by now. We are in a world where many people do not know how to think critically anymore. I recommend that everyone watch Don’t Look Up on Netflix

When should one get a booster?

You can get a booster dose if you had the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at least three months ago. Of course, if doses are not enough, vulnerable groups, people living in the same household as vulnerable groups, and frontline healthcare workers should be prioritized.

What do you suggest the community or government do to stem this pandemic in 2022? An expert interviewed by ABC News in the US  said that we should be looking not only at the rate of infections, but also at rates of hospitalization and death. His point is that while the pandemic continues, the effects of the virus aren’t as deadly, and the vaccinated have greater chances of fighting the symptoms.

I think at this point, anyone who says ‘the effects of the virus aren’t as deadly’ should not be taken seriously

I think at this point, anyone who says “the effects of the virus aren’t as deadly” should not be taken seriously. If trillions of dollars of economic input and 5.5 million lives lost (and this is most probably an underestimation) are not serious enough, I don’t know what is.

Vaccines and, not vaccines only, should drive national strategies, as should global solidarity—the sharing of vaccines, and I know I am preaching to the choir here. We need to use all the tools we have. Effective use of rapid antigen tests plus vaccines plus N95, KN95, and medical masks plus early treatment ventilation/air filtration will help control Omicron and end the acute stage of the pandemic, as we are still in this stage.

We had four variants of concern in 2020 (alpha, beta, delta, gamma) and only one in 2021 (omicron). COVID will eventually reach a more manageable state

What is the outlook for 2022 in this fight against the pandemic?

Treating COVID could get easier because of the antivirals. At-home rapid testing (just like how we use pregnancy tests) will play a bigger role in slowing the spread. We can expect to see more variants. We had four variants of concern in 2020 (alpha, beta, delta, gamma) and only one in 2021 (omicron). COVID will eventually reach a more manageable state, like the seasonal flu. Will it be in 2022? I hope so. But to reach that point, we need to see a dramatic decline in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Community transmission rates also need to drop, and immunity from vaccination or infection needs to rise.

At the moment the world has fully vaccinated around 40 percent of the total population. Once that reaches between 60 and 70 percent, things will improve (unless a new variant emerges).

What is clear is this: we are not in March 2020, where we as a global community were helpless. We have all the tools we need now. We just need to use them efficiently and equitably. Imagine if all the vaccine doses were given to everyone on the planet first, and not used to boost those who already had two doses.

Credit: Art Cards by Noel Avendano

Read more:

Vaccines: Why don’t you listen to science?

Vaccine development—from 10 years to 10 months—how did that happen?

So now, etiquette for the vaccinated and the not vaccinated

Chasing the mighty vaccine

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