The WHO has urged European countries to prepare for vaccinations against Covid-19, stressing that community acceptance will be crucial to the success of the health programmes.
More than 200 Covid vaccines are under development, some of which have already completed phase 3 clinical trials with an efficacy rate of more than 90%.
This week the UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against Covid-19. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is also reviewing vaccines from the US company Moderna and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca team.
Speaking at a press briefing, Dr Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, said the promise of vaccines was phenomenal, and the rewards potentially gamechanging. “The virus still has the potential to do enormous damage unless we do everything in our power to stop its spread and part of the solution will be vaccination,” he said.
But he added: “To be sure that we reap the full reward of those vaccines, we need to have plans in place.” He noted that the WHO was working with countries to expand their cold chain capacity, vaccine safety monitoring and community engagement.
Among the issues that needed to be addressed was public trust in vaccines, Kluge said, noting that surveys had found half of people in some countries in Europe were unsure about taking vaccines against Covid-19.
Kluge said public concern about vaccination was “understandable” and that people should turn to trustworthy sources for information. He stressed that national regulatory authorities would thoroughly assess the vaccines for quality, safety and efficacy before approving them.
“Don’t be part of a misinformation infodemic,” said Kluge. “Vaccination saves lives, fear endangers them.”
Dr Siddhartha Sankar Datta, programme manager for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunisation at the WHO regional office for Europe, said the findings underlined the importance of transparency by health ministers and agencies when communicating with the public about vaccines.
The approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by the UK has caused some waves in Europe, with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) suggesting the MHRA prioritised speed over winning public confidence.
But Datta stressed that the MHRA, like other regulatory agencies, had been making decisions about vaccines for decades, adding that the WHO had acknowledged the MHRA decision and, together with the EMA, had reached out to the former for details of its evaluation of the vaccine.
“The decision-making process was shared also with the general public and also with the healthcare professions on the different modalities that were assessed and the final decision being made by regulatory authority of the UK yesterday,” he said.
The EMA expected to reach a decision on the Pfizer vaccine later in December.
Datta said the WHO was monitoring preparedness in Europe and would be tracking vaccine uptake. He also noted that while the WHO had previously warned against the idea of “immunity passports”, the organisation was looking closely at the idea of vaccination passports for travellers and was working with Estonia to explore the development of an “electronic vaccination certificate”.
He said the approach had hurdles – such as the differing legislative frameworks of various countries – and it was necessary to think about the capacity of health systems to engage with innovations in the midst of the pandemic.
The WHO team said that while the vaccines brought hope, the limit to doses meant that vaccination initially would have to be restricted to priority groups, such as people over 60 and healthcare workers. It meant that restrictions would be crucial in the months ahead.
Kluge said: “We have seen progress made in Europe over the last number of weeks, with the application of measures which, however difficult, have reduced case transmission. We must remain vigilant to maintain this progress – to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our health workforce.”
Dr Catharina Smallwood, a senior emergency officer at the WHO regional office for Europe, agreed. “We have noticed there is a lot of fatigue, there’s a lot of lax implementation, and we need to remind ourselves that [the virus] hasn’t gone away, it won’t go away and over the Christmas and winter holidays, there is a very real potential of it becoming even more of a problem as people try to gather as families, communities and congregations. Now more than ever is the time to implement what we need to individually but also at a collective level.”