Seychelles, the East African archipelago currently recognized as “the most vaccinated nation on Earth” because such a high percentage of its tiny population has been inoculated against Chinese coronavirus, reimposed emergency restrictions on Tuesday because infections have become “critical” once again.
Seychelles relied heavily upon vaccines from China donated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“Despite all of the exceptional efforts we are making, the Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] situation in our country is critical right now, with many daily cases reported last week,” Health Minister Peggy Vidot said.
Vidot added that hospitals are running at capacity as patient loads increase while some health care workers take ill, but “for the time being, we are assuring the public that with our current capacity we can continue services.”
Seychelles has a total population of less than 100,000 people. 62 percent of them have been vaccinated, initially using the Sinopharm vaccine from China. Later in the vaccination program, India’s version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, “Covishield,” was added to the mix.
Despite this high level of vaccinations, coronavirus cases rose from 612 to 1,068 in the first week of May. Bloomberg News reported that 84 percent of the new cases are occurring among native Seychellois rather than foreigners. About a third of those new cases have been fully vaccinated with two shots.
Seychelles officials speculated the surge in cases might have been caused by “people taking fewer precautions against the virus” or “celebrations after Easter,” but those should be less important factors if so much of the population has been vaccinated. Health experts speculated a South African variant of Chinese coronavirus that appears to be resistant to the AstraZeneca vaccine could be spreading in Seychelles.
Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine professor Daniel Lucey told Bloomberg News that different responses between unvaccinated people, those who received the Sinopharm shots, and those who used India’s Covishield should be studied carefully.
“Given the widespread international use of these two vaccines there are global implications to what is happening now in the Seychelles,” Lucey said.
Chile had a comparably dismaying experience with China’s Sinovac vaccine. In April, the Chilean government published an ostensibly “game-changing” study that showed Sinovac was 67 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infections, 85 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations, and 80 percent effective at preventing death from the coronavirus.
The Chilean study excluded asymptomatic infections on the grounds that including them would add “more noise” to the data, but a Chilean health official estimated the effectiveness of Sinovac would fall to “around 54 or 55 percent” if asymptomatic cases were included. Studies of Western vaccines like Pfizer generally make an effort to include asymptomatic cases, with the caveat that their impact might be underestimated because without visible symptoms, these cases are more difficult to monitor.
Even though these figures are far lower than the effectiveness of the top Western vaccines, Chilean officials hailed the study as proof they had made the “right bet” by purchasing 60 million doses of Sinovac.
Chile soon began experiencing waves of coronavirus patients infected, and sometimes hospitalized, even after receiving Sinovac injections. Chilean officials scrambled to deal with the unexpected surge, much like their counterparts in Seychelles. Doctors concluded a single dose of Sinovac is only about 16 percent effective against symptomatic infections. versus 85 percent for the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Chilean officials defended their decision to use Sinovac, hoping the second dose will bring its effectiveness up to the nominal 67 percent (versus 91.3 percent for two doses of Pfizer).
The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) believes the Sinopharm vaccine used in Seychelles is about 78 percent effective in adults, but added there is insufficient data to calculate its effectiveness for the elderly and people with existing medical conditions, the highest-risk groups of coronavirus patients. The interim W.H.O. report was not clear about whether asymptomatic cases were considered.
W.H.O. has not yet approved Sinopharm’s product for emergency use, although a W.H.O. official hinted on Wednesday that approval could be coming by the end of the week for both Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines. If both are approved, China could become the world’s largest coronavirus vaccine supplier.
AstraZeneca points to studies that show its vaccine is comparable in effectiveness to Pfizer’s after the first shot. South Korea on Wednesday released a study with about 3.5 million participants that found AstraZeneca is 86 percent effective for people aged 60 and older after the first shot, while Pfizer’s product is 89.7 percent effective for the same group. The announcement did not specify whether asymptomatic cases were considered.
Interestingly, AstraZeneca’s large-scale trials rated the first shot as less effective than South Korea’s study, while Pfizer’s trials rated their vaccine’s effectiveness higher – a discrepancy that might be explained by the appearance of coronavirus variants. The first-shot effectiveness studies are important because the rollout strategy in many countries emphasizes getting the first shot to as many patients as possible before delivering second shots.
Seychelles is heavily dependent upon tourism, so the estimated 70-percent drop in visitors and $368 million in lost revenue during 2020 hit hard. Quickly vaccinating the population so travel restrictions could be lifted was a high priority for the government.
The UAE, a major trading partner whose national air carrier Ethiad Airways has business interests in Seychelles, kicked off the vaccination program in January by donating 50,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine. India followed up by donating 50,000 doses of Covishield. As of mid-April, about 60 percent of Seychelles inoculations employed the Chinese vaccine.
Seychelles President Wavel Ramkalawan predicted herd immunity would be reached in mid-March as vaccination levels approached 70 percent. Restrictions on visitors were lifted on March 25, with the exception of South Africa, which is grappling with its vaccine-resistant strain of the coronavirus. The United Kingdom, one of the biggest clients for Seychelles tourism, is not scheduled to allow foreign holidays until later in May. Masking, handwashing, and social distancing procedures were kept in place indefinitely.
Lockdown procedures are now returning as coronavirus cases mount, including closed schools and bars, canceled sporting events, banned public gatherings, and quarantines for travelers. Emergency measures will reportedly remain in place until at least May 24.
A group of Israeli tourists complained on Wednesday they have been prevented from leaving Seychelles due to false positive coronavirus tests.
“The conduct here is simply absurd,” one of the Israeli tourists complained. “There’s no chance that so many vaccinated Israelis are coming out positive. Most of the service providers here are vaccinated.”