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International experts discuss COVID-19 vaccines at FIU symposium

International experts discuss COVID-19 vaccines at FIU symposium

March 3, 2021 at 10:32am

As the world continues to fight against the deadly coronavirus, the Global Health Consortium within the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work and the Office of the President hosted a virtual conference on Feb. 26 exploring in-depth one of the most important topics of the year: COVID-19 vaccines.

With 2,300 people watching online, speakers from Latin America, Europe, Israel, West Africa and the United States as well as representatives of the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization and the Baylor National School of Tropical Medicine discussed what many recognize as “amazing progress” toward the control of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 vaccination is one of the key strategies to control and potentially eliminate the SARS-COV-2 virus,” said Dr. Carlos Espinal, director of the Global Health Consortium. With the symposium, he added, “FIU is on the frontline of COVID-19 technical and scientific information, and [information about] vaccines and the potential impact of this strategy to control COVID-19. The experts that were participating as panelists or speakers during the symposium are people with great expertise. It was a great event.”

"FIU is on the frontline of COVID-19 technical and scientific information, and [information about] vaccines and the potential impact of this strategy to control COVID-19.”

— Carlos Espinal, director of the Global Health Consortium. 

The experts addressed a number of topics including updates on available vaccines; vaccine hesitancy from people around the globe; communication strategies to increase trust in vaccines; distribution inequity; global collaboration; and the implications of virus variants on vaccine efficacy.

Chaim Rafalowski, who is the disaster management and European Union Projects coordinator at Magen David Adom in Tel-Aviv, Israel, discussed the successes, experiences and findings of the vaccination program in Israel – which has emerged as a leader globally for its vaccination efforts.

As of now, Israel has immunized 54.6 percent of its population with at least one dose, and close to 90 percent of its elderly population over 60 years of age. Among the elderly population, the percentage of COVID-19 patients requiring ventilation drastically dropped, suggesting the vaccine may be reducing severe sickness and mortality.

Speakers also addressed issues regarding which vaccines have higher efficacy levels and which ones might more effectively counteract the effects of the new variants (particularly the South African variant).

Another set of concerns also emerged clearly throughout the symposium: Who has access to these vaccines?

Many of the experts expressed concern about global inequalities and lack of access to vaccines for minorities and other vulnerable groups even within countries. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, explained that low-and middle-income countries may have more trouble accessing or purchasing vaccines like the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

A step in the right direction, according to various experts: COVAX, a global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.

Aside from distribution issues, the experts discussed that vaccine hesitancy itself still persists, even in countries that are leading successful vaccination campaigns, such as Israel.

“People at first wanted to be vaccinated, but that changed,” said Rafalowski. “We have the vaccines but don’t have the people that are queuing to be vaccinated.”

He said they’ve found that one of the best ways to reach young people who may be distrustful of the vaccine is to allow them to talk with a health expert and get their questions answered directly.

“It’s about talking to people,” he explained. “Telling them about their personal responsibility. The second challenge is [there’s the idea that] ‘I got my vaccine and now I can party’. It has to do a lot with human nature and fatigue. The fact [is] that we still have to take precautions.”

In the end, the experts agreed, communicating accurately, honestly, transparently – and with empathy— about vaccines remains one of the greatest ways of increasing vaccinations and keeping communities safe from the virus. 

Watch the recordings of the symposium on the Global Health Consortium's website

Alexandra Pecharich contributed to this story.