In visit to Germany, health minister promotes cooperation, worries about vaccine accessibility

Sep 2, 2020

Attending an international conference in Germany on combating the Covid-19 virus, Ecuador Minister of Public Health Juan Carlos Zevallos warned Tuesday that no country will be able to overcome the pandemic on its own. He also voiced concerns about the availability and safety of a vaccine.

Health Minister Juan Carlos Zevallos

“No country or no city will come out of this pandemic alone,” he said. “The contagion is too widespread and moves too easily across borders for one government to control it. International cooperation is essential not only in stopping the physical spread but for the sharing of data and scientific information that allows us to mount a medical response.”

Zevallos also voiced concerns about a vaccine against the virus. “I worry about its safety and effectiveness and also about its availability to poorer countries like Ecuador,” he said. “I understand the need to produce a vaccine as quickly as possible but this raises questions about safety. If a vaccine is rushed to the market and to general use it could cause adverse effects, including accidentally spreading infection.”

Repeating earlier remarks, he said the vaccine will not be the “silver bullet” some people had hoped for. “It will be a very important tool in fighting the virus but it will be one of many. I understand the controversy about suggesting the efficacy of herd immunity through infection but it is a fact and it is well underway in Ecuador and around the world. Early data on the vaccines currently being developed suggest that they their effective rate may be no higher than 60 percent and if you consider that people may need two vaccines to gain real immunity, you see the problem with the math.”

He added that he is in discussions with European health officials as well as counterparts in Latin America to make sure Ecuador has access to a safe, effective vaccine when it is available. “We don’t want to be at the end of the line with our hand out when a reliable vaccine becomes available. Ecuadorians should have the same access to a vaccine as those who live in Europe and North America do.”

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Part of his mission in Berlin, Zevallos said, is to build relationships with European medical and public health professionals that will help Ecuador recover. “Germany has done an excellent job containing the virus and we are taking a close look at their strategies,” he says. “They have much greater resources than we have and the population is different than ours, but their success if providing some guidance for our efforts.”

Although Ecuador and other Latin American countries face the challenge of educating a large poor population, Zevallos says Ecuador is faring well in at least one category. “I think we have a higher percentage of our people wearing masks than most European countries,” he says. “We have been able to get the message across and at least in Ecuador I think it has helped control the virus.”

He added that his trip and the contacts he has made will pay dividends beyond the Covid-19 virus. “We are developing an exchange program of researchers, doctors and public health personnel between Europe and Ecuador that will be of great value in the future.”

Following the Berlin conference, which ends Thursday, Zevallos plans to visit Spain and the U.K. before returning to Quito.

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