(CN) — The World Health Organization on Tuesday said the bumpy rollout of vaccines around the world against the novel coronavirus was to be expected for an endeavor so complex and unprecedented.
Separately, the United Nations health agency also said during a news briefing that it was “disappointed” that China on Tuesday blocked the arrival of an international team of experts looking into the origins of the novel coronavirus. The agency’s chief said he was hopeful China would soon allow the team in.
Around the world, more than 30 nations have begun vaccination programs but there are growing concerns over how well vaccines are being used, approved and distributed.
In Europe, politicians are under fire for a slow rollout of vaccines. India and China are pushing ahead with mass inoculation programs after approving vaccines that experts worry haven’t been fully vetted. In the United Kingdom, faced with an explosive outbreak and a shortage of vaccines, the government has chosen to give people a first vaccine jab to make them somewhat immune and delay when they get a second booster shot.
“I think we’re seeing those growing pains,” said Dr. Kate O’Brien, the head of the WHO’s program for immunization, vaccines and biologicals. “We’re starting to see where some of those road bumps are and where we need to make adjustments.”
WHO experts said getting the new vaccines against coronavirus distributed and into people’s arms will be extremely difficult.
“This is a complex process, it is resource intensive – both human and physical and financial resource intensive,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of emergencies at WHO.
He said many countries underestimated how difficult setting up new mass vaccination programs would be and that they now need to invest in their health systems to handle this new burden.
“All countries need to really take a hard look at their capacity to deliver vaccines,” he said.
He added that it’s not good enough for nations to simply secure vaccines but also track who gets inoculated.
“You can’t file and forget, you can’t dispatch and forget; you have to follow each vaccine right into the arm of the person who has to get it,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to follow that chain.”
In the European Union, there is frustration over a slow rollout of vaccines in some nations, most notably France, where only about 500 people have been inoculated so far. In all, the EU has vaccinated about 500,000 people since it approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shortly before Christmas. By comparison, more than 1 million people have received shots in the United Kingdom and more than 4 million in the United States.
The EU was slower than both the U.K. and U.S. to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use. Last week, the WHO also gave its approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Clinical trials showed the vaccine being highly effective against the coronavirus, but it must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures and this has proven to be difficult and expensive.
In the U.K. and the U.S., a scientific debate has erupted over whether it’s prudent to delay giving people a second booster shot of two highly touted vaccines, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna antidotes, which are based on providing immunity through a new method using RNA, a type of molecule found in human cells. By delaying a second shot, more people can be vaccinated, though it’s unclear how effective a single dose is against infection. The Pfizer-BioNTech makers say a second dose should be administered 21 days after the first one but Britain is now telling people who get the first dose that they will have to wait up to 12 weeks for the second shot.
“Policymakers are using all of the evidence that is in front of them,” O’Brien said. She added that they are making those decisions on “evidence that is evolving.”
She said there was “some evidence that single dose efficacy is quite high” and suggested that it was prudent to delay a second shot in order to get more people vaccinated.
“One risk is that we are very, very scrupulous about applying the vaccines in the way that they were applied in the clinical trials that generated the evidence on efficacy and in doing so we have some limitation of the number of people who can receive the first dose depending on how the supply is rolling in,” she said. “And then the second risk is that if we allow for a broader use of vaccine first doses, there may be some delay in getting the second dose among some people.”
Nations are racing to vaccinate their populations to put an end to a pandemic that has killed about 1.9 million people around the globe, though the tally is likely much higher. At the end of December, for instance, Russia’s statistics agency acknowledged that its death toll was three times higher than its official tally of 59,506 fatalities linked to Covid-19.
Globally, 86.6 million people have been found infected with the virus, but that number too is undoubtedly an undercount because many people show few or no symptoms when they are infected and are not tested. A new Chinese study found that likely 490,000 people in Wuhan were infected with the virus, a figure that is 10 times higher than the official number. Wuhan is an industrial city in central China with about 11 million inhabitants where the novel coronavirus was first found in December 2019.
The origins of the coronavirus remain a mystery, though the first cases of infection were traced to a so-called “wet market” in Wuhan where wild animals were sold.
On Tuesday, members of a team of international experts convened by the WHO were on their way to China and Wuhan to investigate the origins of the virus. But for reasons that remained unclear, China blocked their entry.
“Today we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalized the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during the news briefing from the agency’s Geneva headquarters.
“I’m very disappointed with this news given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute,” he said.
WHO officials said China had previously agreed to allow the team to enter.
“We were all operating under the understanding that the team would begin deployment today,” Ryan said.
Ryan said two members of the team were en route when they were told they did not have clearance to enter China.
“We trust and we hope that this is just a logistic and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly,” Ryan said.
Tedros said he has been in touch with senior Chinese officials and he was assured China “is speeding up internal procedures for the earliest possible deployment” of the team.
In recent months, China has blocked journalists seeking to find out more about where the virus may have originated. Journalists have reported being tailed by plainclothes Chinese agents and getting stopped by roadblocks preventing them from reaching caves where scientists believe bats carrying the novel coronavirus dwell.
In recent weeks, China’s state-owned media has also advanced theories that the virus may have originated outside of China. The country has backed up that claim by saying it has found the coronavirus on imported food.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.