By editorial board • 

New challenges hamper campaign against COVID

COVID-19 is a fearsome menace to our way of life, and has lingered far, far longer than any of us might have imagined when it began early last year.

Along the way, it has killed more than half a million Americans, infected more than 30 million others, and crippled normal social, economic, educational and athletic interaction for the rest. And every nation on the planet is suffering along with us.

The end appears to be in sight, thanks to rapid development and deployment of highly effective vaccines. However, the view remains too distant and indistinct to fully embrace just yet, and we suffered a potentially devastating blow earlier this week when officials at least temporarily halted administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson is the third of three to come U.S., joining Pfizer and Moderna. The removal stems from a rare form of clotting experienced by a subset of the 6.8 million American recipients —  six women in the 18-48 age range, one of whom died.

It accounts for about only 80,000 of the almost 2.5 million doses of vaccine administered in Oregon to date, and a similar percentage nationally. However, its potential value is very high in the state and nation, and even higher for the world as a whole.

Johnson & Johnson holds several distinct advantages over its Pfizer and Moderna rivals: It depends on older and better established technology. It requires only one dose. It is substantially cheaper. And it can withstanding to three months of transport and storage under nothing more than routine, universally available refrigeration.

These advantages make it ideally suited for people who aren’t well rooted — such as farmworkers and street people — or live in remote, hard-to-reach locales — say, Alaska’s expansive wilderness. It has also proven a much better sell to the hesitant portion of the population, thought to run as high as 30%. You only have to reach them once, you can do it cheaply and you don’t need any sort of high-tech refrigeration capability.

Unfortunately, that segment of the population is very much larger in many parts of the world than in the U.S. And because COVID respects no artificial boundaries, vaccination constraints around the globe threaten us as much indirectly as they menace our distant brethren directly.

More than half of all adult residents have been at least partially vaccinated in many states, and both Oregon and the U.S. as a whole are nearing that mark. While loss of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will hinder efforts to reach the roving, remote and reluctant, it shouldn’t greatly impede the overall effort.

But consider this: In many African nations, including Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe, less than one-half of 1% of the population has been even partially vaccinated at this juncture. And single-dose, cost and refrigeration issues loom large in all Third World nations, not just those on the African continent.

We are also facing another serious new challenge — a soaring infection rate among the under-18 set. That is causing a serious COVID resurgence in some parts of the U.S. just as we are moving to fully resume in-person public education.

Clearly, we are going to need to begin vaccinating our children if we are going to truly vanquish this scourge. However, the lowest age currently authorized for vaccination is 16, and that’s only for Pfizer.

All three major U.S. providers are currently conducting clinical trials with children. It appears, however, that approvals probably won’t be forthcoming until fall, even if all goes well.

The combination of the Johnson & Johnson setback, rising youth infection rates and continued vaccine reluctance among a disturbingly large numbers of adults makes one thing abundantly clear: We can’t let our guard down yet. We may be able to see the finish line looming in the distance, but we aren’t there yet and don’t know when we will be.

Yes, we’re as tired of this as you are. But for now, vigilance must remain our mutual watchword.


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