Graca Freitas: photo taken by José Sena Goulão/ Lusa

Graça Freitas: overview of two years of pandemic turns blind eye to ‘elephant in room’

Or indeed elephants…

Yesterday, various media outlets carried an interview with DGS health director Graça Freitas – the ‘face’ of Portugal’s fight against the pandemic – to commemorate the second anniversary of the first case of SARS-CoV-2 infection in Portugal.

In the early days, the public health veteran was endlessly on the nation’s screens, presenting daily Covid bulletins – telling citizens initially that masks were absolutely unnecessary, changing this information as time went on, and progressively erring on the side of caution.

For a brief time during the intense months of mass vaccination, Graça Freitas appeared to take a back step, and the country was massively impressed by the uniformed military man in charge of the vaccination task force, now back commanding the Navy after taking Portugal ‘to the top of the world’ in terms of timely inoculations.

Since vice-admiral (now promoted to Admiral) Henrique Gouveia e Melo relinquished control of the pandemic, Ms Freitas has been ‘back’, and although the interview yesterday hinted at a slow-burning end to the ‘public health emergency’, she appeared in no hurry to let it go.

Indeed, Ms Freitas made a point of saying Portugal could ‘regress’ at any point – and that citizens need to be prepared for this.

“It could be that it will be necessary to adapt measures for the next autumns and winters”, she told Lusa. “Some years will be more restrictive, others less”, she said.

Yes, there was the positive aspect that she believes “we will reach a time when recommendations will almost not be needed… when the population, services, society will adapt, making measures more flexible, in a way that measures impact as little as possible on our social and economic life”, but the interview didn’t give the impression – given recently by certain virologists (click here) – that Omicron has essentially done the job of the vaccines, and powered global immunity.

Even Bill Gates is credited with this understanding (click here), but not Portugal’s director of health.

Another potentially positive aspect of the interview was the indication that any future vaccines will be ‘selective and seasonal’: in other words, not mass-administered (and presumably not mandatory).

Less clear was whether those who choose not to select to be vaccinated might find themselves on the short end of whatever ‘measures’ could be put in place in coming autumns and winters.

But potentially much more worrying was the apparent absence of awareness of updated scientific findings regarding the vaccination of young children – a subject that has divided medical professionals and caused controversy across the board.

A couple of days before Ms Freitas gave her interview, international media reported: “Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine offer almost no protection against coronavirus infection in kids aged 5 to 11, according to new data posted online – a finding that may have consequences for parents and their vaccinated children” (this from the United States’ NBC news).

In the UK, the Guardian headlined its report with “Pfizer vaccine significantly less effective in children ages 5 to 11, study shows”.

The bottom line of a study from New York health officials was that “additional research” may be needed “to determine the best dose to administer to children, taking into consideration factors such as the number and timing of shots”.

In other words, the theory of virologists that SARS-CoV-2 is now just another coronavirus that we can all live with is really taking its time to filter through.

Another seemingly missed update was one that came out of Hong Kong recently – showing that teens double vaccinated against Covid-19 ran a seven times higher risk of developing myocarditis than those who took only one shot (click here).

Some countries have altered their programmes for these age groups as a result, others (Portugal included) have not.

As a director in public health, it was not clear from Lusa’s text whether Graça Freitas was aware of this new research.

She told Lusa she believes adhesion by Portugal’s parents has been “quite good” (roughly half answered the call to get their under-12s vaccinated), and she stressed that “services continue open to vaccinate any child who has not yet appeared.

“We continue to be open and will always have moments dedicated to the vaccination of children over time (…) Whoever takes the decision in the meantime, can go to the health services and find out when there will be vaccination for children. It is not (a) movement that ends”, she said.

At no point in the interview were the alternative views of pediatricians addressed, nor the ‘disciplinary action’ that has been taken out against the president of the pediatric college for warning about lack of sufficient data to justify the continued vaccinating of young children (click here)  – a warning that in light of the study coming out of New York was entirely justified.

natasha.donn@algarveresident.com