COVID-19 vaccines have been ‘ a long time in the making’ – Dr. Zainab Abdurrahman

By Lincoln DePradine

Dr Zainab Abdurrahman

Many sceptics  in the Black  community still question “the speed” at which vaccines to combat the Coronavirus were produced.

But  while the first  COVID-19 vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – were given approval and put into use last December, these products are ” the finetuning of work” that began more than a decade ago, according to  Dr Zainab Abdurrahman and Dr. David Burt

Abdurrahman and Burt were among a panel of four speakers that made presentations last Saturday at an online town hall meeting.

It was part of a continuing series being spearheaded by the “Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity’’, set up by the City of Toronto.

Trevor Aldridge

The Task Force includes Black public health officials and scientists  and is mandated to “develop public health recommendations to address Black community concerns’’ about the COVID-19 vaccines.

“The vaccines were able to be developed rapidly because of previous work that was done,’’  said Burt, an immunologist, research scientist and consultant.

A lot of the work, which started with the outbreak of SARS and MERS, was “archived’’ and has been able “to be transferred to this COVID-19 virus,’’  he  explained.

(SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – is a viral respiratory disease that was first identified at the end of February 2003. MERS – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – is also a viral respiratory illness. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012.)

The COVID-19 vaccines have been “a long time in the making’’, said Abdurrahman, an allergist, immunologist and infectious disease specialist.

“This is a combination of years of work,’’ she said.

Dr Candice Todd

“They started working on this with SARS and with MERS but money and funding did not go into continuing their development because they were not diseases that were as prominent anymore.’’

“Our intention really is to reduce positivity rates, reduce hospitalization rates and still save lives,’’ Task Force chairman, Dr Akwatu Khenti, said at the meeting organized in conjunction with the Canadian Multicultural Inventors Museum and the Harriet Tubman  Institute.

Educator and veteran calypsonian, Henry Gomez (Cosmos)  who moderated the session,  referred to the “vaccine skepticism” in the Black community  following “reports of vaccines gone wrong in some African countries’’.

“Added to this is the debate over whether vaccines cause or contribute to autism, especially among Black boys,’’ said Gomez.

 “We have all kinds of information floating around and sometimes it becomes very confusing; people don’t know what to believe, what not to believe.’’

Trevor Aldridge, a former Health Canada drug and biological specialist with vast experience in biopharmaceuticals manufacturing, said he had examined US morbidity and mortality rates as presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The safety monitoring of the COVID-19 vaccines, Aldridge said, “has been the most intense and comprehensive in US history and that is really saying a lot’’.

Abdurrahman explained that the COVID-19 vaccines “went through all the exact same phases as any other vaccine that we have on the market “.

Burt said studies of the Coronavirus vaccines have shown them to be safe, with the “usual side-effects such as fever and headache, which disappear after a few days. Side-effects like anaphylaxis or allergy are very, very rare. This data is coming from studies in the United States, where Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being rolled’’.

Henry Gomez

The Black community and other racialized communities “have been impacted the most by COVID-19’’, said Burt. “So, it’s important for us to be aware of the benefits and the risks associated with the vaccines.”

Dr Candice Todd, a naturopathic doctor with expertise in disease prevention, said at the meeting  that  people ought to consider taking the vaccine and also adopting measures “that help to support the immune system’’.

“There is nothing that is evidence-based out there that can confer immunity the way that the vaccine can, to the degree that it can. So, that’s something important to think about,’’ said Todd.

 “On a longer term scale,’’ she suggested, “think about the things that can help to keep you healthy – exercising, eating well, sleeping, and engaging with others socially.’’

“It’s always better to gather for prevention than to gather for cure,’’ Task Force chair Khenti said in closing remarks on Saturday.

The next in the current series of town hall meetings will be held on Saturday.