Despite multiple requests from doctors and government officials, Pakistan is struggling to find volunteers for its part of a multi-country Phase 3 clinical trial of a Chinese vaccine against the new Coronavirus.
“Hospitals … have been facing difficulties in recruiting volunteers for the trials because of the flood of misinformation, mainly on social media,” a senior official at the National Institute of Health (NIH), a government-run research body, told Nikkei Asia on condition of anonymity.
A Chinese pharmaceutical company is collaborating with Pakistan’s National Institute of Health (NIH) in conducting clinical trials of its Covid-19 vaccine, the final phase of which approved by the country in September.
The single-dose vaccine candidate, termed as Ad5-nCoV, is co-developed by CanSino Biologics, a Tianjin-based Chinese vaccine company, and the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, a Chinese military-backed research arm.
China is expected to supply the COVID-19 vaccines to its ally Pakistan as a priority. The Ad5-nCoV Phase 3 trial is expected to last till January 2022, with around 40,000 volunteers expected to participate from Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Pakistan.
?? The Ad5-nCoV #SARSCoV2 #coronavirus #vaccine jointly developed by Kang Xinuo Biological & the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences has been approved for military use in #China. Phase 1 published in The Lancet. Phase 2 completed on June 11, 2020. https://t.co/kjUGl5ZyLN pic.twitter.com/7dwIxRgJ4C
— Dr. Melvin Sanicas ?? (@Vaccinologist) June 30, 2020
Even a public request from the physician heading the Phase III clinical trial in Pakistan last month urging people to volunteer for the trial led to limited success.
The country has a history of people resisting immunization programs. The ubiquitous disinformation surrounding the Chinese vaccines has made the situation worse, with people hesitating to come forward and volunteer for the trial.
Pakistan has reportedly selected five hospitals in Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore for the clinical trial of the Ad5-nCoV vaccine, and around 8,000 to 10,000 people are expected to take part. The country has been the recipient of significant Chinese medical and financial aid since the Coronavirus first broke out.
The NIH official quoted by Nikkei Asia said that it was an expected response in a country like Pakistan and that the phenomenon was not unique to the country.
“Globally, many people distrust particular vaccines, or new ones, which they might perceive to be inadequately tested,” he said.
Also, since it is for the first time that a Phase 3 trial is being conducted for any vaccine in the country, the requests to ask people for volunteering is bound to be met with vaccine hesitancy.
The number of volunteers who have so far signed up for the trial are not known, however, according to Nikkei, the Indus Hospital (TIH) in Karachi, one of the five hospitals selected for the trial, said around 500 had volunteered there since October 13, though its target is 2,000.
However, despite constant fear-mongering and misinformation, the number of people who were willing to volunteer for the tests has gradually been increasing, and hopefully, the target could be achieved, according to NIH official.
There are too many misconceptions about the vaccine trials, and nothing is known about the Covid-19 virus so far, which worsens the problems for medical researchers.
Pakistan has been dealing with anti-immunization campaigns for decades, especially for polio, thinking it to be some sort of poisonous substance or part of a US conspiracy to sterilize children in Islamic nations. This attitude had made Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan the only two nations infested with Polio.
Consequently, Pakistan had failed to eradicate polio for decades despite persistent efforts, undermined by opposition from conservative Muslim groups. The country’s polio vaccinators have even been persistently attacked by the Taliban forcing authorities to suspend such activities numerous times.
Last year, the country’s National Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) for polio directed all provinces to halt the polio eradication drive, in an effort to protect some 270,000 polio field staff from attacks, as per Pakistan media reports.
Although the propaganda and conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus are not West-related, they are nonetheless widespread because of social media. Gallup conducted a survey in Pakistan which showed that about 55% of Pakistanis were unsure if the virus is real and that 46% considered it part of a conspiracy.
However, not everyone is affected by disinformation campaigns; some are taking part in the trial in the hope of ending a pandemic that has so far killed more than 1.2 million across the globe. The Pakistan government on its part has been running advertisements against COVID-19 disinformation in an effort to encourage people to volunteer for the trials.
The country has been successful in keeping the pandemic under control; however, the cases have started to rise again, with 1,376 new infections and 30 deaths confirmed on November 6, bringing the cumulative number of cases to 3,40,251 and deaths to 6,932.