The UK witnessed an uptick in COVID-19 cases from the end of November, leading to another lockdown as hospital admissions surged, Consultant in Clinical Immunology and Allergy at Royal Free Hospital and University College London Prof. Suranjith Seneviratne noted in his assessment of the state of the pandemic in his country of residence.

He pointed out that an increase in cases has placed a great deal of pressure on the NHS as generally, many patients are admitted in January due to other respiratory infections.

“The number of cases is more than 50,000 a day along with over 1,000 daily deaths at one point,” Seneviratne noted, explaining that while the situation has improved, the figures continue to be quite high.

Discussing the country’s vaccination campaign, he said: “Vaccinations would be an important stand in controlling the pandemic. Three vaccines have been approved in the UK with two already being rolled out.”

However, he noted that a shortage has led to changes in the vaccination programme. So instead of administering the second dose to those who received the first jab, the government changed its approach to cover as many people as possible with the initial dose.

This has led to some debate as the second dose is required for the vaccination to be fully effective. To this, Seneviratne responded: “We know that a single dose of the vaccine offers protection to some extent so from a public health perspective, it is necessary to protect as many people as possible – and as soon as possible.”

“Looking at the information as a scientist, the ideal picture would have been to follow the protocol as laid out by Phase 3 clinical trials, which is what we have advised people to do; but circumstances overtook the process,” he explained, adding that the authority tasked with immunisation in the UK was compelled to alter the course of action due to the shortage of vaccines.

In Seneviratne’s view, there is a need for nations to understand the nature of the global pandemic – i.e. it is not isolated to particular regions – so collaboration with others is needed: “Sequencing is not cheap so countries must prioritise their resources.”

Elaborating on this, he pointed out that countries that spend on testing and sequencing may find themselves unable to purchase vaccines. So while some nations may be capable of developing vaccines, collaborating with other centres is vital.

While there are hopes that the world will return to a pre-COVID scenario, Seneviratne stressed the need to achieve herd immunity, which refers to about 60 or 70 percent of the population gaining immunity to the virus. Additionally, he revealed that there are questions about how long the protection offered by vaccines will last.

However, he believes the critical link is distributing the vaccine to people and in this regard, stated Sri Lanka is fortunate to have a childhood immunisation policy that has positioned it as a leader in the region.

Complexities are expected to arise in the form of logistics while some vaccines have proven to be more effective than others.

“In the UK, the private sector was brought in to work hand in hand with those in the government sector to be able to roll out the vaccine because ideas from both are needed,” Seneviratne opined.

Expanding on this, he stated that the former would be capable of meeting delivery targets while the latter’s strengths would include coordination.

As for how long it will take to achieve herd immunity, Seneviratne said: “It will take months because we have already produced vaccines but this is not the end because they have to reach the people.”

“Even when you receive the vaccine, a fairly large number of people must be immune to have herd immunity; and during that period, they need to wear masks and physically distance [themselves],” he asserted, declaring that “you have a responsibility to yourself and when you live in a society, there is a responsibility to others too.”