Head of ‘Most Vaccinated’ Country Seychelles Defends Chinese Vaccines amid Coronavirus Surge

An engineer works in the general laboratory during a media tour of a new factory built to produce a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at Sinovac, one of 11 Chinese companies approved to carry out clinical trials of potential coronavirus vaccines, in Beijing on September 24, 2020. (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)
Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

President Wavel Ramkalawan of Seychelles, lauded as the world’s most vaccinated country against Chinese coronavirus, defended Chinese-made vaccines on Tuesday despite the fact that their use in his country has failed to prevent a surge in coronavirus cases.

Seychelles has fully vaccinated 69 percent of its population; 61 percent have received at least a first dose of a vaccine. The island nation has relied heavily on the Chinese-made coronavirus vaccine candidate from the firm Sinopharm to inoculate its population, as well as “Covishield,” the vaccine product by European company AstraZeneca (the name Covishield denotes doses produced in neighboring India). Like Chile in Latin America, the African country received high praise internationally for how quickly it reached high rates of vaccination, then began experiencing a surge of cases that it could not explain given the alleged efficacy of the products in use. Seychelles relies heavily on tourism for income, giving it an outsized need to restore free travel to attract tourists.

Seychelles has documented 8,172 cases of Chinese coronavirus since the pandemic began and only 28 deaths. Of these, however, 1,799 cases were documented on May 10 alone. The country is home to about 97,600 people. Officials began documenting an increase in cases last week, prompting the restoration of coronavirus social distancing and lockdown measures including the closure of schools and cancelation of mass events like sports games. At the time those precautions went into place, the BBC reported that a third of individuals diagnosed with active coronavirus cases were fully vaccinated, meaning they have received two doses of the Sinopharm vaccine candidate.

In an interview with the Seychelles News Agency published on Monday, Ramkalawan blamed citizens feeling “more comfortable” and engaging in social activities for the increase in cases, even though many have received vaccine product doses.

“What we can say is that people who are unvaccinated and are against vaccines are those who are sick. We have seen the number of cases; these are people who have not taken any vaccines or people who have received only their first dose,” the president said. “I need to also add that admission cases make up 75 to 80 percent of not-vaccinated people.”

Ramkalawan explicitly defended Chinese vaccine products as effective, noting that only senior citizens received the AstraZeneca product.

“We have seen, for instance, a situation at the old people’s home where patients who had received only one dose of Covidshield were infected. There were no lives lost and the patients have recuperated; this is the efficiency of the vaccine,” Ramkalawan said. “And after this, when we take a look among the population of those between the ages of 18 to 60 who received Sinopharm. If the vaccine were not effective, people would have died when infected and there would have been many more people requiring hospitalization.”

“In this age group of people needing hospitalization, 80 percent were not vaccinated,” he continued. “Again this reflects the efficiency of the vaccines. And we want to say that the two vaccines, Sinopharm and Covidshield AstraZeneca have served our population very well. People may be infected, but they are not sick.”

The president went on to call the current situation “normal” despite the alarm rise in cases.

“Seychelles is not going through something extraordinary. All countries are going through a wave, even in those countries where they are recording decreases,” Ramkalawan argued. “We do not know when another wave will hit. Seychelles is going through the wave but the country is in the limelight simply because of our success.”

Ramkalawan encouraged foreigners to travel to Seychelles and described tourism there as safe, even as locals deal with school shutdowns and other policies.

“My message to the world, do not let the figures worry you,” he concluded. “Understand that we have the facility to serve those that require oxygen and those with complications and this is the reason COVID [Chinese coronavirus] -related mortality in Seychelles is one of the lowest in the world. We can manage the situation and we remain safe.”

Ramkalawan’s comments differed significantly from those of his health minister, Peggy Vidot, last week.

“Despite all of the exceptional efforts we are making, the Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] situation in our country is critical right now, with many daily cases reported last week,” Vidot warned at the time.

Chinese media outlets celebrated Ramkalawan’s remarks on Tuesday – notably omitting concerns from other officials in the country – and condemned experts publicly questioning the efficacy of the Sinopharm product.

“Chinese experts said that questioning by foreign media over the effectiveness of Sinopharm’s vaccine is arbitrary and the surge of COVID-19 cases in Seychelles is fueled by multiple factors,” the state-run Global Times propaganda outlet claimed, “such as mutant strains and the level of protective antibodies in the population.”

The outlet did not name the alleged “expert.”

“A Beijing-based immunologist who requested to remain anonymous told the Global Times on Tuesday that the evaluation of the effectiveness of the Sinopharm vaccine is arbitrary,” the newspaper relayed, “and the causes for the outbreaks in Seychelles should be analyzed with more detailed information about the patients and taking into consideration factors such as mutant strains and the level of protective antibodies in the local population.”

Vaccines should affect the “level of protective antibodies in the local population,” according to standard scientific understandings of how inoculation works. The Global Times did not clarify the anonymous immunologist’s remark. It went on to blame the alleged South African variant of the Chinese coronavirus for the rapid spread of the disease in Seychelles.

According to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), which recently approved the Sinopharm vaccine product, the shot is estimated to be 79 percent effective against symptomatic cases of Chinese coronavirus; it does not mention asymptomatic cases, which could potentially infect others without the patient knowing. In contrast, the first vaccine approved by the United States government, by the firm Pfizer, is believed to be about 92 percent effective against symptomatic cases and 90 percent effective against asymptomatic cases, according to a study published in February.

Sinopharm has tested better than the first Chinese-made vaccine Beijing approved, by Sinovac Biotech, which initially tested at about 50 percent efficacy. China claimed its efficacy was about 20 percentage points higher but Brazil’s Butantan Institute, which ran clinical trials for the product, later revealed its true rate.

Chile, another nation internationally praised for high vaccination rates, relied heavily on Sinovac’s product, “Coronavac.” In mid-April, after successful mass vaccination drives, Chile began documenting a surge in coronavirus cases, calling into question the efficacy of Coronavac. Chile defended the product but began diversifying its pool of offerings, including cutting a deal with Pfizer for its vaccine.

China, which developed both the Sinovac and Sinopharm products, is expected to soon approve the Pfizer product for emergency use and import at least 100 million doses. Unlike Chile and Seychelles, China has documented one of the world’s lowest vaccination rates for developed countries, alarming its infectious disease experts. The Chinese Communist Party is also entertaining the use of vaccine “cocktails” in which the same person receives doses of multiple products.

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