Bumpy road ahead for global COVID-19 vaccine rollout, experts say

FILE PHOTO: Vials with a sticker reading, "COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only" and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Pfizer logo in this illustration taken October 31, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - Governments worldwide face a tremendous challenge in building up the logistics needed for mass vaccination against COVID-19 and providing clear messaging to their citizens to boost confidence in the shots, public health experts said on Wednesday.

Speaking at the Reuters Next conference, experts speaking from the United States, India and the UK said they were hopeful the world will turn a corner against the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 - as long as authorities focus on getting vaccines into arms and persuading pandemic-weary populations to adhere to social distancing measures in the meantime.

"There was a lot of victory dancing and celebrating that we were bringing forward these great vaccines, but where we've fallen short is we've not paid attention to the operational discipline and competency needed to design and implement a vaccination program," said Michelle Williams, dean of the faculty at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States.

She said she was optimistic that an injection of funding into public health infrastructure and "clearly articulated messaging" by the incoming administration of President-Elect Joe Biden would help limit the spread of the virus while also accelerating testing and vaccination programmes.

Speaking from the UK, Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project and a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said she felt that in some ways, 2020 was the easier part in dealing with the pandemic.

Now, in 2021, "we've got not just one vaccine, we've got multiple vaccines, different doses, different platforms, and some of them have never been used before," she said.

"It's a time of hyper-uncertainty. Publics are tired. They're worn. Not all politicians have been helpful here. And things are changing by the day," Larson told the conference.

She predicted a "bumpy road" ahead in the coming months, after many of the elderly and most vulnerable have had shots and when people who are less at risk, and more likely to be hesitant about vaccine plans, could voice concerns.

Dr Naveen Rao, senior vice president of the Health Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation in the United States, who spoke to the online conference from India, said one uncertainty ahead for COVID-19 vaccination plans was the issue of coronavirus mutations emerging in new variants.

"We don't know how this will play out," he said. "The variants are something we should be wary of."

Rao noted that tests so far on whether the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine can protect against new SARS-CoV-2 variants that have emerged in Britain and in South Africa appeared positive. He also noted that scientists have said the vaccines can, if necessary, be tweaked to take new variants into account.

"As the virus is mutating, we should be able to keep up. But time will tell," he said.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland)

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