Vaccine task force coordinator, Vice Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, visiting the Alcabideche vaccination centre (Cascais) on August 21, when 12-15-year-olds were receiving their first dose of the Covid-19 jab Photo: TIAGO PETINGA/LUSA

Portugal leads world in vaccination rankings

Portugal is ‘leading the world’ when it comes to vaccination rankings. Our World in Data, one of the most popular sites for tracking countries’ progress through the pandemic, has this week (August 24) put Portugal at the top of its list for the share of population that has initiated the vaccination process.

For reasons unclear, Israel (with a vaccination rate of around 78%) is not on the list. But even if it was, Portugal would be ahead: the percentage of population with at least one shot of Covid vaccine as of Tuesday this week stood at 81.6% (or 82% according to Our World in Data’s chart).

The achievement – considering the ‘slow’ and rather rocky start back in January – is seen as nothing short of astonishing.

In just seven months, vaccine task force coordinator vice admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo has gone from a relatively ‘unknown’ former commander of submarines to a national hero.

No-one is expecting him to know ‘what happens next’, but when it comes to the job he was given – to roll-out protection for a population of 10.3 million people – he has risen to the challenge in a way few could have imagined.

Visiting vaccination centres on a daily basis – markedly taller than everyone around him – he cuts a dash in his combat fatigues, which he wears ‘because this is a war’ (his words), and he means to win it.

Next week, he tells journalists, Portugal’s vaccination percentage will have risen to 83%, and by the week after – ahead of initial targets – the protection should have increased to 85%.

On Wednesday, the 60-year-old military man received a medal of excellence from the municipality of Guarda.

The week before he was decorated by President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa with the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Avis (for outstanding military service).

In June, he received a gold medal from the municipality of Vila Real for everything he has done to ‘save lives’.

These are just the latest in a long line of other awards for military service and excellence.

As he has stressed “there are richer countries and more capable countries that haven’t managed” what Portugal has achieved “because of strong negationist movements that have not allowed them to progress”.

Portugal has “enlightened people with deeply rooted knowledge and culture. I am convinced we will corner this virus, strip it of its maneuverability, dry it out”, he said on Wednesday.

Over the previous weekend, national media enthused over the unexpectedly robust response to the call for 12–15-year-olds to turn up and take their shots.

Roughly 40% of the just under 400,000 secondary school age pupils have already started the process and next weekend should see even more joining.

Second shots will be administered over the weekend starting September 11, before the start of the school year.

As everyone agrees, the vice-admiral has been an inspired choice to lead Portugal’s vaccination programme – but there are still huge questions over where in reality it will be taking us.

Parents, for example, have no idea how vaccinating their children will change the way the academic year ahead is managed.

Television talk shows have concentrated this week on the ‘lack of information’ coming from the government. Undersecretary of state for health António Lacerda Sales, for example, has said that ‘in principle’, very little in terms of prevention/restrictions in schools is set to change. Does that mean that when outbreaks are flagged, children will still be sent home? No-one seems to know.

More to the point, however, is the information coming from various quarters about vaccine limitations. There is no secret that multiple old people’s homes in the country – where all residents are fully-vaccinated – have been hit by new outbreaks. Indeed, the vaccine technical commission has come up with a list of what amounts to around 100,000 immunosuppressed people in Portugal that it considers will need third dose booster shots, to beef up immunity ahead of the winter months.

On Wednesday, a new study coming out of the UK was suggesting immunity conferred by both Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs drops significantly after six months, and could (potentially) dip below the acceptable level of 50% by the winter.

This comes after other studies, including research by investigators at INSA – Portugal’s public health institute Dr Ricardo Jorge – have conceded that the current mRNA vaccines are not a complete protection against the Delta variant (which is responsible now for 100% of infections in Portugal and elsewhere in the world).

Meantime, Israel – the country first accredited with vaccinating the highest number of its citizens – has had to forge ahead with third shots for the whole population after infection rates started spiralling.

Very much as our story “Beyond vaccines” attempted to show earlier this month, vaccines – however miraculous their emergence has been – do not appear to be the long-term solution to this battle. The simple logistics of maintaining immunity would involve vaccinating people repeatedly through the years – and it is already clear that vaccinated people ‘transmit’ the virus if they come into contact with it.

In other words, the prospect of ‘cornering it’ or even ‘drying it out’ is possibly too simplistic.

Talking to journalists this week about her own team’s research, scientist Cecília Arraiano of the New University of Lisbon put it bluntly: “We cannot go on and on vaccinating people every few months.” No health system could cope with this kind of demand. Other solutions are needed. And in Portugal, Dr Arraiano’s team has already identified three ‘compounds’ – meaning existing medicines, created for other purposes, freely available on the market at a low cost – that can reduce the harmful effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection to the point that it could be relegated to the strength of a simple ‘cold’ (which, as she stresses, coronaviruses habitually are).

This pandemic has been – and will continue to be – a rollercoaster ride through uncharted territory. All countries can really hope to do is keep up with scientific research and ‘try and hold on tight’ – which is exactly what Portugal seems to be doing.

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