‘We will never control the virus with vaccines alone’: Virologist

Felicity Nelson

writer

Felicity Nelson

Science journalist; strategy consultant

Felicity Nelson

 

COVID vaccines have saved millions of lives around the world, but we need more than just vaccines to control the pandemic, says virologist Dr Gary Grohmann.

“Vaccines have been important. They definitely save lives. But I think we’re at the end of the road with vaccines for the moment unless there’s a tremendous shift in either the virus or vaccine technology,” said Dr Grohmann, who is an independent consultant on influenza primarily to the WHO and a director of the Immunisation Coalition.

“We will never control this pandemic with vaccines alone. We’ve got Australians with two, three or four vaccines and we have thousands of cases per day and hundreds of people die every week. So, it’s pretty clear that vaccines are not the whole answer,” he said.

Speaking ahead of his ‘COVID Update’ presentation at Healthed’s upcoming webcast, Dr Grohmann said we can’t vaccinate our way out of a pandemic.

COVID vaccines are 70-90% effective at preventing hospitalisation and death. “COVID vaccines did stop a lot of people from dying,” he said. “They did save lives and millions of lives.”

“But people don’t want to be taking a vaccine again, and again, and again,” said Dr Grohmann.

“I think children with underlying disease should get the COVID vaccine, but not normal, healthy children because there’s no burden of disease,” he said, commenting on the TGA’s recent decision to approve the Moderna COVID vaccine for children aged between six months and five years.

Repeating injections every few months forever is not how we normally use vaccines, and there’s no long-term safety data on this approach in adults or children, he said.

mRNA COVID vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) and the DNA vaccines (Astra Zeneca) were shown to be safe in clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people, but they have not been studied for as long as the protein vaccines (Novavax), he said.

That doesn’t mean vaccines were not a useful and safe tool to use during the pandemic, despite how anti-vaxxers may respond to such comments, he said.

“Now, the anti-vaxxers will take any little snippet of anything that anybody says and blow it up to support their argument, but this is simply bias,” he said.

“They think they know everything. And they don’t. Scientists would be the first to admit that we don’t know everything, but we’re moving in the right direction. Lives have been saved, vaccines have been made, they are getting better.”

What else is there?

Australia was acting like a “rabbit caught in the headlights” when it came to preparing the community to deal with future COVID waves, said Dr Grohmann.

“We should be doing more to promote mask wearing and we should consider creating a CDC to prepare for the next pandemic,” he said.

There have been “tremendous” and positive changes towards covid testing, working from home, using telehealth, and using antiviral drugs, but more is needed, he said.

“If we could just inculcate a little bit of education into common courtesy, then I think people would be happy to wear masks in unventilated or crowded situations,” he said.

“Walking around in the corridors and standing in queues that are absolutely packed, we’d be mad not to wear a mask.”

Last year’s restrictions produced a dramatic drop in respiratory conditions, and that should be what Australia is aiming for permanently (without the long, disruptive lockdowns), he said.

“We didn’t just see COVID drop, influenza basically disappeared. We saw pertussis disappear. We saw all these respiratory viruses almost go to zero,” he said.

“I think we need to change our whole attitude to public health education,” he said.

“We do have to accept the virus at the end of the day. But we don’t have to accept the virus on the terms where it can just simply do what it wants willy nilly,” he said.

“We still need some restrictions in place, particularly for vulnerable people.”

Want to find out more?

Register for Healthed’s upcoming free webcast, which will contain Dr Grohmann’s presentation and other important topics, here.

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Felicity Nelson

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Felicity Nelson

Science journalist; strategy consultant

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