This effect (runaway COVID-19 infections) has also been seen in the tabulations of coronavirus infections among many global islands in addition to the Seychelles, that Iain Orr has been tabulating every few days since March 21, 2020, and which Godfrey Baldacchinno has been posting and updating on the ISISA.ORG website.
Begin forwarded message:
From: The Washington Post <email>
Subject: Today’s WorldView: A warning sign from the world’s most vaccinated country
Date: May 10, 2021 at 12:00:06 AM EDT
By Adam Taylor
with Claire Parker
Shoppers wearing masks are seen in Victoria, Seychelles on April 2. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)
As the Seychelles began to offer free coronavirus vaccinations early this year, President Wavel Ramkalawan told reporters that the country was planning to reach herd immunity within weeks.
It was an ambitious target for a small, geographically isolated island nation in the Indian Ocean. But with its economy heavily reliant on tourism, the country called in favors to attain a vaccine supply from regional allies, including India and the United Arab Emirates.
The effort initially seemed to be a success. The Seychelles stands as the most vaccinated nation on Earth, with more than 60 percent of its population fully vaccinated, more than other vaccine giants such as Israel and Britain, and almost twice the United States’ rate of vaccination. But that success was undermined last week as the Seychelles found itself with the world’s largest number of new coronavirus cases per capita and was forced to reinstate some restrictions.
Though the number of new cases is relatively low — peaking at an average of just under 150 new cases a day — they are a big deal in a country with a population of less than 100,000. On a per capita basis, the Seychelles outbreak is worse than India’s raging surge. In a small country, even a small number of cases can be overwhelming. “A spike in cases places an enormous burden on an already strained public health system,” said Malshini Senaratne, director of Eco-Sol, an environmental consultancy firm in the Seychelles.
With the country’s main treatment center for covid-19 patients nearing capacity and doctors and nurses among the sick, the Seychelles announced the return of coronavirus restrictions, school closures and limited opening hours for shops and restaurants. “These are an upward trend,” said Public Health Commissioner Jude Gedeon at a media briefing last week. “We do not know how long it will last, but this will depend on what measures are taken and how the new measures are respected.”
President of Seychelles Wavel Ramkalawan receives a dose of the Chinese covid-19 vaccine produced by Sinopharm at the Seychelles Hospital in Victoria in January. (Photo by Rassin Vannier/AFP via Getty Images)
The Seychelles situation is being watched all over the world. “It is providing a critical case to consider the effectiveness of some vaccines and what range we have to reach to meet herd immunity,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Huang noted that other nations that had vaccinated large proportions of their populations, including Israel and Britain, had seen significant drops in new daily cases. Sherin Francis, chief executive of the Seychelles tourism board, said that while much of the population was vaccinated, there were pockets that were not.
Government data released lastweek found that of 1,068 active cases, around 65 percent involved residents who were either completely unvaccinated or had received only one dose. Francis emphasized that even people who have been vaccinated can get infected. “Vaccines are very effective at preventing serious illness and death; they are less good at preventing infection,” Francis said.
So far, the number of deaths in the Seychelles attributed to the virus is relatively low — 28 out of more than 6,000 cases, as of last week. Most of those infected have only mild symptoms, Tourism and Foreign Affairs Minister Sylvestre Radegonde told the Seychelles News Agency over the weekend.But the surge in new cases may also confirm that the vaccines being used in the country have comparatively low effectiveness.
Roughly 60 percent of the doses administered in Seychelles are vaccines made by the Chinese company Sinopharm that were donated to the Seychelles by the United Arab Emirates. The remaining doses are of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and produced by the Serum Institute of India.
In many ways, Seychelles government negotiations for vaccine supplies were savvy and speedy. But the country has ended up using two vaccines that appear to be less effective against symptomatic covid-19. The World Health Organization recently estimated the efficacy of the Sinopharm vaccine at just over 78 percent for adults under 60, with little data on its success with older patients. The UAE has asked some who received the Sinopharm vaccine to return for third doses, citing low immune responses, though officials said only a “very small number” need to do so.
Meanwhile, U.S. trials of AstraZeneca have found that the vaccine is 79 percent effective overall. Both vaccines are considerably lower in effectiveness than the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna, which use mRNA technology and have reported effectiveness rates of around 95 percent.
Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist who works with the Rand Corp., estimated that given what was known about the Seychelles’ vaccine rollout and the vaccines used, less than 49 percent of the population could be assumed to have immunity conferred by vaccines. “It is still far below the community-level protection requirement,” she said.
“It’s not surprising that they are not seeing a significant decline in cases,” CFR’s Huang said. “But what is surprising to me is that they’ve seen a significant increase in cases since late April.”
Footprints dot the sand on the beach on Mahe island, Seychelles in March 2019. (AP Photo/David Keyton)
That rise in cases arrived after something else: the return of tourists to the Seychelles. But so far, the evidence linking the two is unclear.
After almost a year of strict border controls, the Seychelles announced early this year that it was opening back up to tourists beginning March 25. The government said there would be no quarantine requirements and that visitors would not need to be vaccinated, though they would need to show negative PCR tests taken less than 72 hours before travel. It was an important move for the Seychelles, which relies on tourism for about a quarter of its economy. Economic output declined by 13.5 percent in 2020, largely because of steep drops in tourism revenue, according to the World Bank.
While the number of new daily coronavirus cases has more than doubled since tourism restrictions were removed, only 10 percent of positive cases are among visitors to the island, according to Francis. Even so, the rise in new cases threatens to upend the country’s reopening to tourism. In one recent dispute, vaccinated Israeli travelers publicly complained of “false positive” coronavirus tests that disrupted their stay. The Seychelles Tourism Board refuted that claim on Friday.
“While applying restrictions, care has been taken to ensure that the visitor experience is not affected and that our visitors are still able to enjoy an uninterrupted holiday in Seychelles,” said Francis, adding that the country was able to guarantee PCR tests with results within 24 hours.
Huang Bouey said that while vaccines can help prevent deaths, there was increasing agreement among medical professionals that they alone could not stop new cases or outbreaks. “Quarantine, mask-wearing and crowd-avoiding should be part of the public health strategy,” she said.
Senaratne said it was possible that the Seychelles’ ongoing outbreak could drive away tourists and that the government was undertaking a “delicate balancing act between health and wealth management.”
“Covid-19 has starkly outlined the vulnerabilities of an island nation that remains highly dependent on tourism,” she said, adding that the country would need to diversify its economy. “While we hope the spread of the virus will be curbed in the short term, we cannot help but look uneasily towards the future.”
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