Hope for Portugal amid vaccine ‘breakthrough’ as virus numbers plummet

Portugal has received some exceptionally positive news this week as the number of new cases of the virus being registered nationally every day has plummeted.

Against a backdrop of media noise about ‘fraudulent vaccinations’ benefitting county politicians, their families, cleaning ladies and even pastry shop employees – and with the EU facing huge criticism over its ‘catastrophic’ vaccine procurement programme – a study by scientists at Oxford University has revealed that a single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine slashes Covid transmission and ensures protection for three months.

The team behind the study anticipate that even with current variants, the vaccine will protect against hospitalisations and deaths. The implications are huge.

On the basis that Portugal is expecting 6.9 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, its reinforced efficacy raises real hope of an end to ‘pandemic paralysis’ in which businesses everywhere have been incapable of moving forwards.

The BBC’s health correspondent James Gallagher said on Tuesday that there is a “good chance” that these findings for the AstraZeneca vaccine apply just as equally to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently being rolled out in the (agonisingly slow) first phase of Portugal’s vaccination programme – basically because both these vaccines “target the same part of the virus”.

“If one can cut transmission, there is a good chance the others can too,” he claims.

With Portugal deep into a lockdown prime minister António Costa previously said we couldn’t afford, and with national statistics institute INE reporting the largest fall in the Portuguese economy in its democratic history, there is no time to lose.

This country is champing at the bit for good news that will signal the way back to work – and more importantly the way back to tourism which (irrespective of politicians’ talk of ‘reindustrialising the nation’) remains key to Portugal’s economic recovery.

Let’s concentrate (for once) on the good news …
Throughout the course of the pandemic, Portugal’s mainstream media has focused solely on the bad news: the numbers of deaths, the numbers of new infections, the numbers going into the nation’s hospitals. The message that the overriding casualties of this virus continue to be elderly people with seriously compromised clinical conditions is invariably ‘glossed over’: every death is a tragedy, a life to mourn.

Indeed, the implication is that to suggest otherwise would be considered ‘crass and unfeeling’.

Yet, this week, Expresso published a list of age groups that have suffered the most in Portugal so far: of the country’s 13,000 deaths (at time of publishing), just shy of 11,500 involved patients over the age of 70.

Another aspect proved this week is that Portugal’s lockdown strategy has had a massive effect on transmission. The number of new cases has been falling for days – with Tuesday’s total (‘just’ 5,540) the lowest tally recorded in almost a month.

Recoveries too are rarely ‘plugged’ in the press: but on Tuesday alone, no less than 17,500 people recovered from Covid ‘infections’ (it has to be said that many of these people will have been ‘recovering’ from said infections without having experienced any symptoms of the virus: SARS-CoV-2 does not attack everyone equally).

In other words, week three of Portugal’s lockdown definitely sees ingredients to nurture the ‘feeling of hope’ – if only due to what is happening on the wider sphere.

There is still a long way to go – but the way ahead does not appear quite so impossibly dark.

Portugal enters “most demanding phase” of vaccination programme
As we went to press, Portugal was embarking on what prime minister António Costa and health minister Marta Temido described as “the most demanding phase so far” of the country’s vaccination programme.

With 0.69% of the population already covered by two-shots of the Pfizer vaccine and 2.66% having received one shot, Público explains authorities still have to inject 69.31% of citizens to reach longed for ‘group immunity’: the point where the virus loses traction.

That mission began on Wednesday when vaccinations started being administered by health centres to all citizens over the age of 80, and those over the age of 50 with certain pathologies (cardiac insufficiency, coronary disease, renal insufficiency and COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

It is a “universe of 900,000 people”, demanding “great capacity for mobilisation of all health units”, said Mr Costa, adding that this particular phase will see Portugal make “a great leap and start to arrive at a much more diversified population” than the one initially targeted – involving mainly healthcare professionals and seniors in old people’s homes and continuous care facilities.

But once this phase has been tackled – and once authorities’ machinery is running (hopefully) on well-oiled wheels – it will be the moment for ‘the rest of the population’. This, said Mr Costa, will be “the challenge of all challenges” – but it is the only way out of this horrendous global crisis.

EU makes huge effort to ensure pharmaceutical industry “complies with contracts”
The EU as an entity has had a hideous ride over the last week in the press, all down to what international headlines have decried as a ‘catastrophic vaccination procurement programme’, which has seen supplies dribbling through to member states well below expectations.

But as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics. As we went to press on Wednesday, prime minister Costa was describing “a very large effort by the European Union to ensure the (pharmaceutical) industry complies with contracts and increases the capacity for production to accelerate the process of vaccination”.

France 24 television news confirmed this, reporting that “BioNTech and Pfizer will now boost their vaccine deliveries to the EU after widespread outrage when they said they might not be able to meet demand… Both Pfizer and BioNTech will now expand their production capacities in Belgium and Germany”.

Portugal accepts that the next few months will be massively demanding – “we will all have to continue with measures of protection that we have learnt to practice over the last few months” (the words of health minister Ms Temido), but the way out of this horrorshow is becoming much more clear.

As for people who do not have an SNS family doctor assigned to them, Ms Temido has stressed “there are other ways”.

One of these is to get a declaration from a private doctor that vaccination during this first phase of Portugal’s programme is required, and this will then be duly processed.

Said Ms Temido on Wednesday, 300 people have already handed in these declarations and will be receiving their vaccines over the course of the next two months.

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