How the Covid-19 pandemic evolves this year will define the world’s future. It is a precarious situation indeed. The impressive development of two vaccines in record time –Pfizer’s and Moderna’s- is a formidable achievement. However there was the expectation that other vaccines would arrive. Merck has just shelved two vaccines for not yielding expected immunity. AstraZeneca is in the process of addressing concerns about the effectiveness of its vaccine in the elderly before European Union regulators. Apart from these, only Johnson & Johnson’s, which will disclose results in a couple of weeks, and Novavax’s, in March, are short-term possibilities.
The world is racing against the clock. Vaccinating most of the planet’s population is urgent. But at the same time, curbing virus transmission is essential. There is no scientific evidence that vaccination renders a person unable to spread infection as an asymptomatic carrier. If infections continue, the great risk is that Covid-19 will continue to mutate until an existing vaccine-resistant strain appears.
There are three known new Covid-19 variants: British, South African, and Brazilian. In all likelihood there are many more, which haven’t been discovered because they’re not being sought out. That is why halting transmission is key. Countries like Mexico, with open borders, where virtually no testing takes place, and where lockdowns are not enforced, could prove the ideal breeding ground for powerful variants of the virus. Some that have emerged are 50 percent more contagious, but other more lethal ones could appear.
What can we do in Mexico? Let’s begin by massively increasing the availability of free PCR tests. Also, developing contact-tracing systems is of the essence. If more asymptomatic Covid-19 patients undergo testing, we can detect and isolate them before they spread the virus. What is being done in Mexico today is absurd. Temperature checks to people entering a public place may allow detecting those who have symptoms. The huge problem is the asymptomatic individual who unintentionally spreads the virus. And don’t get me started on chlorine mats or the massive use of antibacterial sanitizers. Our problem is viral, not bacterial. Using so much antibacterial will only speed up the evolution of stronger, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
At the same time, Mexico should fast track the approval of therapies and treatments that have worked well in advanced countries and that would save lives. Let’s reduce the Covid-19 mortality rate. For months now, Mexico’s drug agency (COFEPRIS) has been withholding its approval of Eli Lilly’s Bamlanivimab, a monoclonal antibody treatment that, administered in the first week of infection, prevents the virus from “sticking”, barring the virus from damaging the vascular system and organs in most cases. At the same time, COFEPRIS has green-lighted Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which no serious regulator around the world has approved. It is doing so for political reasons, given that it is the only one of which president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration has managed to buy millions of doses. Russia has a long history of deception. Years ago it claimed to have developed an aids vaccine, and later an ebola vaccine. Neither exists.
Experts estimate that Covid-19’s real toll is 375,000 dead Mexicans, including my mother. According to Harvard-trained doctor Laurie Ann Ximénez-Fyvie, if the Mexican government does not radically change the management of the pandemic, the death toll will be 600,000 by June. As she has explained, the strategy must hinge on evidence. In Mexico we continue to ignore it and even conceal it.
What will it take for president López Obrador’s administration to stop lying and withholding information? What has to happen for the average Mexican to secure access to a hospital bed if needed? What has to happen for an ordinary Mexican to have the same medical care and medicines that president López Obrador received when sick with Covid-19? When will the official in charge of the Covid-19 strategy, Hugo López Gatell, resign or be ousted? When a million Mexicans have died? Two million? Is the criminal complicity of “Dr.” López-Gatell more valuable than the lives of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans? I and too many Mexicans share the pain of having lost a loved one. We also share the dreadful frustration of seeing that, despite overwhelming evidence for the need to change course, the Mexican government only cares today about politics.
* Jorge Suárez-Vélez is an economic and political analyst He is the author of The Coming Downturn of the World Economy (Random House 2011). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @jorgesuarezv