The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and presents an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems and the world of work. The economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic is devastating. Coronavirus has affected day to day life and is slowing down the global economy. It has rapidly affected our day to day life, businesses, disrupted the world trade and movements. The distribution and administration of Covid vaccine in the United States and around the e3ortld have given us hope, but there are several unanswered questions and skepticism about the efficacy of the vaccines.
Second in a series of webinars, a timely discussion organized virtually by Global Organization of Persons of Indian Origin (GOPIO) Manhattan Chapter in collaboration with the Indian Consulate in New York on Friday, February 26th provided answers to these most important questions.
Attended by people from around the globe, the webinar led by Hana Akselrod, MD, MPH attempted to answer questions raised by laymen on the pandemic, how it spreads and ways to prevent and mitigate the spread. Currently an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dr. Akselrod has been active in medical education, serving as a faculty mentor in the Quality Improvement and the Clinical Public Health curriculum programs, conducting research on HIV and aging as part of the DC Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) and DC Cohort Longitudinal HIV study. During an hour long presentation, she provided an overview of the epidemic and the efficacy of the vaccines in common man’s language.
In his opening remarks, Consul General of India in New York, Randhir Jaiswal congratulated GOPIO for organizing the much needed webinar on Covid 19 and for educating the community on such a timely and vital topic with a thoughtful session by experts in healthcare field. While acknowledging the challenges faced by humanity due to COVID, Ambassador expressed hope and said, “There is optimism in the New Year and we hope to put this pandemic away.” Ambassador lavished praises on GOPIO and its leadership for the many initiatives. “GOPIO has helped NRIs in several ways, facilitating travel, organizing prescription medicine and providing living accommodation to many stranded due to Covid. I am appreciative and thank GOPIO for their constant efforts to be on the forefront.”
Ambassador Randhir Jaiswal referred to India’s massive undertaking under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has undertaken, what is likely to be the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccination campaign, joining the ranks of wealthier nations where the effort is already underway. India has plans to vaccinate 300 million people, roughly the population of the United States. Praising the two India-based pharmaceutical companies for manufacturing the vaccines in record time, Mr. Jaiswal said, “We are sharing our vaccines with other countries who need. It gives us pride that we can share our scientific knowledge with the world.” While acknowledging that the mutations are posing additional threats, he assured, “We are pushing the pandemic away in India and around the world.”
Dr. Asha Samant, in her opening remarks, described the current period experienced by humanity due to COVID as “a dark period in human history.” Dr. Arnab Ghosh, a physician in Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) specializing in adult Bone Marrow Transplantation, moderated the lively session. “While admitting that “we do not have answers to many questions to Covid that has changed our lives in all possible ways,” he said, “Where to find vaccines? GOPIO is seeking to find answers.”
Dr. Thomas Abraham, Chairman if GOPIO-International shared greetings to the Manhattan Chapter leaders and panelists from GOPIO International. “India has done a great deal of service to the world by being a leader in supplying vaccines to as many as 33 nations around the world. Referring to how the pandemic has impacted human lives for over a year now, Dr. Abraham pointed to how the City of New York was among the worst hit and that life is returning to near normal, especially with strict guidelines and the arrival of the vaccines.
In her opening remarks, Dr. Hana Akselrod shared with the audience about her upbringing as an immigrant to the US from Russia and how she overcame the hurdles and has been able to achieve the dreams and aspirations of her immigrant parents. She shared about the proximity of the George Washington University where she teaches and researches on epidemiogy, to the divers population and the centers of power in Washington, DC. “We at George Washington University have successful initiated several programs befitting the local community, using the golden standard of community services,” she said.
While acknowledging that the US is responsible for a high percentage of mortality, she stated, it may be due to the fact that many nations do not test and some are not transparent in reporting the actual cases of the virus. “The Covid virus is under reported in several nations, including in the US. We have one of the highest mortality rates in the world.” Expressing hope that, especially with the holiday season behind us, and that many states who were resistant to preventing measures have caught up now, and have contributed to the reduction of cases with the virus, she said.
How do we get out of this? She suggested that everyone follows the common preventable methods recommended by CDC, including hand hygiene, masking, social distance, ventilating, and being prepared to stake a step back. “Vaccination will give herd immunity, if 60 percent of the population is immunized,” she said. However, if the efficacy of the vaccine is less than 100 percent, more people need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
Transmission is far from safe levels, she said. Until we have a population that is immune and has herd immunity, it is a challenge to contain it. “We have extensive studies on the spread and prevention of Covid,” she said. “Preventive measures are important. Vaccination is likely to make us achieve herd immunity.”
“Now, we are more concerned about the variants, which have not impacted much as of now. Low income, lack of education and lack of access to medical care are some of the cause of disparity in Covid infection and mortality rates,” she explained.
How does the virus spread? Dr. Hana Akselrod said, COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly through close contact from person to person, including between people who are physically near each other (within about 6 feet). People who are infected but do not show symptoms can also spread the virus to others. Pathogens that are spread easily through airborne transmission require the use of special engineering controls to prevent infections.
She explained on how the virus spreads thorough the Spike protein. Multiple SARS-CoV-2 variants are circulating globally, she said. Several new variants emerged in the fall of 2020, most notably:
In the United Kingdom (UK), a new variant strain of SARS-CoV-2 (known as 20B/501Y.V1, VOC 202012/01, or B.1.1.7 lineage) emerged with an unusually large number of mutations. This variant has since been detected in numerous countries around the world, including the United States (US) and Canada.
To understand how COVID-19 vaccines work, it helps to first look at how our bodies fight illness, Dr. Hana Akselrod pointed out. “When germs, such as the virus that causes COVID-19, invade our bodies, they attack and multiply. This invasion, called an infection, is what causes illness. Virus can affect all parts of the body. Inflammation, heart disease and lungs mostly impacted. Inflammatory damage process that may cause blood clots.
While assuring the audience that COVID-19 vaccines can help our bodies develop immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19 without us having to get the illness, she said, “Different types of vaccines work in different ways to offer protection, but with all types of vaccines, the body is left with a supply of “memory” T-lymphocytes as well as B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight that virus in the future.” To a question on which is the best of the three vaccines available in the US, she said, “The best vaccine is the one that is available to you now.”
Exploding how each vaccine works and helps gain immunity, on the reactions to Vaccine, Dr. Hana Akselrod said, “Mostly they have found to be safer with minor side effects with some larger effects, most of which are not life threatening. CDC has an app to report the reactions to vaccine,” she added.
While admitting that there are many who are skeptical about the vaccines, not only among the scientific community and among the general public, she stressed the need for effective communication and educating the public. While prominent and scientific leaders have taken on the role, she emphasized the need for education by individual physicians and healthcare workers, who can play a critical role in educating the efficacy of the vaccines. To another question, she said, “Vaccines are not causing infertility among women. There is no proof to it,” she added.
Mr. Shivender Sofat, GOIO Manhattan President thanked the panelists and participants to the timely and very important discussion on COVID and vaccination. In accordance with the mission, the Manhattan Chapter has taken several initiatives in the recent past. He referred to the Community Feeding every month organized by the Chapter. He urged the community to support the initiative by being a volunteer and or a sponsor.