Pakistan to administer booster shots to frontline health workers, elderly

Campaign part of stepped-up NCOC efforts to prevent fifth coronavirus wave keeping Omicron in mind

By: News Desk      Published: 11:01 AM, 1 Dec, 2021
Pakistan to administer booster shots to frontline health workers, elderly
Representational image.

The federal government has decided to launch a campaign from today (Wednesday) to administer booster shots to frontline health workers and elders of 50 years and above keeping in view the spread of the new Covid-19 variant across the globe, reported 24NewsHD TV channel.

The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) will start inoculation of coronavirus vaccine booster shots to the frontline health workers and elderly people from December 1 (today).

In the first phase, the booster shots will be administered to the people above the 50 years age group.

Sources said that the booster shot campaign will be completed in different phases. The vaccine booster shots will be provided to people with weak immunity.

The sources further claimed that booster shots are not mandatory in the first phase of the campaign.   

Health officials said that the strategy for administering the booster shots has been readied and the person receiving the jab could choose the booster vaccine from Sinopharm, SinoVac and Pfizer.

The booster shots are part of the stepped-up NCOC efforts to prevent a fifth wave of coronavirus pandemic in the country in the wake of the emergence of a deadlier and fast-spreading Omicron variant.

On Monday last, NCOC chief Asad Umar had said that the new variant would eventually hit Pakistan in a few weeks. He added that the vaccine was the only option to contain its fast spread. The government had already banned travel from six African countries where Omicron cases had been reported.

Meanwhile, the Sindh government imposed new restrictions across the province in view of the Omicron variant. The provincial home department has placed a limit on indoor dining at hotels at 50% in all districts of the province, except Karachi, where it said the limit would be 70%.

Similarly, wedding gatherings of more than 300 people have been banned in Larkana, Mirpurkhas and Hyderabad divisions, besides Khairpur and Ghotki districts. However, the limit has been raised to 500 people in Sanghar and Sukkur districts and the Karachi division.

Also Read: Pakistan records nine more corona deaths, 414 infections in a day

Travel to the tourist spots, amusement parks, swimming pools and air travel will be subject to Covid vaccine. Similarly, the Home Department said, only vaccinated people would be allowed to enter cinema halls.

Business centres had been told to close by 10pm while educational institutions will remain open.

Omicron, first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in South Africa less than a week ago, has already appeared in many countries, with borders shutting and dozens of governments imposing travel restrictions in defiance of WHO advice.

Also Read: WHO delivers Omicron warning asking unvaccinated people to cancel travel

Several governments, particularly in Western Europe, have reintroduced mandatory mask-wearing, social-distancing measures, curfews or lockdowns—leaving businesses fearing a grim Christmas. Moderna, Pfizer and the backers of Russian vaccine Sputnik V are already working on an Omicron-specific vaccine.

Pfizer seeks US approval for boosters for ages 16-17

Pfizer announced Tuesday it was seeking US authorization for Covid booster shots among adolescents aged 16 and 17, as concerns grow about the impact of the new Omicron variant.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has so far only granted emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for boosters to people aged 18 and over, six months after their primary series of the Pfizer or Moderna Covid vaccine, or two months after the Johnson & Johnson shot.

"Today, we submitted a request to the @US_FDA to expand the emergency use authorization of a booster dose of our COVID-19 vaccine to include 16- and 17-year-olds," Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla wrote on Twitter.

"It is our hope to provide strong protection for as many people as possible, particularly in light of the new variant." 

Experts are concerned that the pattern of mutations detected on the Omicron variant will mean that the protection generated by the current generation of vaccines may take a partial hit.

While lab data should be available to confirm or refute that hypothesis within a matter of weeks, US health authorities are urging all adults to get boosted when they are eligible, so that they will at least be protected against severe Covid, even if not infection itself.

Although more than 200 cases of Omicron have been found in well over a dozen countries, none have so far been detected in the United States, where Delta accounts for more than 99 percent of all infections.

Not all health experts are on board with boosting healthy teens, who are at much lower risk of developing severe Covid but -- in the case of males -- at far higher risk of vaccine-linked myocarditis, when vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna messenger RNA vaccines.

"If the FDA takes this action, it will be a total gamble," tweeted Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist at the University of San Francisco with expertise in biostatistics and epidemiology.

US endorses Merck Covid pill

A panel of US health experts on Tuesday voted to recommend Merck's Covid pill for high-risk adults -- a new form of treatment that is easy to administer and could prove better able to withstand variants, including Omicron.

Molnupiravir, already authorized in Britain, has been shown to reduce the rate of hospitalizations and deaths among people at high risk of developing severe Covid, when it is taken within five days of symptom onset.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which convened Tuesday's meeting, is now expected to grant an emergency use authorization (EUA) for the treatment, meaning millions of courses will soon be stocked in pharmacies.

The independent scientists appointed by the FDA voted 13 in favor and 10 against authorization -- a narrow win that reflected some concerns over a recent downgrading of the treatment's efficacy results, as well as misgivings over potential side-effects.

Sascha Dublin, of the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, said that while she found the benefits compelling and voted "yes," it will be important to make sure the treatment is strictly regulated and goes only to patients best suited for it.

Daria Hazuda, Merck's vice president of infectious disease discovery, told AFP after the vote: "We need as many tools in the toolbox as possible to really make an advance in this pandemic as this virus continues to evolve."

Last week, Merck, known as MSD outside the United States and Canada, released full results from a clinical trial of 1,400 people. 

These showed the pill reduced the risk of hospitalizations and death by 30 percent, a significant result albeit more modest than an earlier advertised figure of 50 percent, which was based on an analysis from half the number of patients.

Hazuda told AFP the reason might be an unexplained drop in the rate of severe cases in the placebo group during the second half of the study, which may have made the drug appear less effective than it was.

- Risk-benefit balance -

Briefing documents uploaded by the FDA ahead of the meeting illustrated the benefit-risk balance the experts were asked to assess.

Potential harmful effects were noted on fetal development, as seen in studies on rats and rabbits, and Merck said it would not recommend use of molnupiravir in pregnant women.

The company did not seek authorization for children, and the FDA said it didn't plan to carry out pediatric trials until safety is established in juvenile rats over concerns related to bone formation.

Currently, the most effective treatment for Covid is monoclonal antibodies, which are administered via a drip and have been shown to reduce the risk of severe cases in high-risk patients by up to 70 percent. 

But pills have the advantage of being far more easy to use, and, unlike antibodies, don't require a visit to an infusion site.  

- Variant-proof -

Merck's treatment is taken as four capsules, twice a day, over five days -- for a total of 40 pills.

It was found to be safe in its clinical trial, with non-serious adverse events such as diarrhea and dizziness occurring roughly equally between the placebo group and the drug group.

Molnupiravir, which was developed in partnership with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, works by introducing mutations into the genetic material of the coronavirus, inhibiting its ability to replicate.

It is thought likely to be more variant-proof than monoclonal antibodies or vaccines, because unlike them, it does not target the ever-mutating spike proteins that dot the surface of the virus.

Molnupiravir's error-driving mechanism has also raised concerns, including that it could harm mammal DNA. In its presentation, however, the FDA said rat studies showed this effect was negligible.

Another worry is whether the mutations the pill introduces might lead to a dangerous evolution of the virus itself, spurring new variants.

This is "currently a theoretical concern," that hasn't been found in real life, the FDA said.

"Treating people should reduce the probability that you're going to transmit these super variants, as opposed to allowing untreated people to transmit the virus," stressed Hazuda.

The US government has committed to buying 3.1 million courses of molnupiravir for approximately $2.2 billion, with the option to purchase more.

Pfizer is also seeking authorization for a Covid pill that cut hospitalizations and deaths by nearly 90 percent.

Reporter Saba Bajair 

With inputs from AFP.