democraciaAbierta: Opinion

What’s behind the proclaimed success of Chile’s vaccination strategy?

The country has vaccinated nearly a quarter of its population – but there are still questions to be answered

Geoffrey Pleyers Karla Henríquez
25 March 2021, 10.28am
A year ago President Piñera had an approval rate of 6%. Today it is as high at 20%
Presidencia de la República / PA Images

Having vaccinated nearly a quarter of its 19 million people with at least one dose, Chile’s campaign against COVID-19 is outpacing much of the rest of the world’s.

The vaccination drive, which is being hailed as a success in Chile and internationally, is moving fast. In the past three weeks, Chile administered 44.31 doses per 100 people. The European Union, by contrast, only managed 12.97.

However the numbers don’t tell the full story. The official data is being presented as if all vaccines are equally effective. That is not the case. Chile has used two vaccines – CoronaVac and Pfizer/BioNTech. The bulk of the doses administered are CoronaVac, which is produced in China. Recent studies show that CoronaVac offers only 50% effective protection against infection. In other words, out of 100 people vaccinated with two doses of CoronaVac, half of them remain at risk to be infected by the virus.

The vaccine will reduce the intensity of the symptoms and so considerably decrease the risk of hospitalization for the most serious cases. However, if infected, these vaccinated persons may still spread the virus, potentially increasing hospitalizations as most of the population has not yet been vaccinated.

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The European Union has not authorized CoronaVac because it has not been proven to be sufficiently effective. In the Philippines, the word on the street about CoronaVac is that it’s reserved for ordinary people while the privileged get the more efficacious vaccines. This is worth noting as the media celebrates Chile’s success in running a vaccination campaign almost entirely with CoronaVac.

Which leads us to ask: is Chile’s objective to protect its population against COVID or to produce the best statistics?

The figures, which make Chile a global frontrunner in the vaccination drive, hide the reality of the battle against the pandemic. This needs to be clarified, especially in an election year.

Little has been said about the implications of the vaccination drive for the election but statistics can be politically managed. A year ago, Piñera’s approval rating was just 6%; it now stands at anywhere between 14% and 20%. Vaccination numbers are of immediate use, but the real extent to which the population is protected will only be known much later. Thus, the success or failure of the government's strategy against the pandemic will only be seen months from now, in the infection and mortality rate.

It is also inaccurate to talk of a fully protected population, with Piñera’s administration saying it is on track to meet its target of covering 80% of its people by 30 June. To date, 2,098,908 people have received both doses of the vaccine. It is important for politicians to send the right message to Chileans – that even if many consider themselves protected from the virus, they are not, or only partially so. It is important to do this to prevent a new wave of contagion and additional deaths from COVID-19.

If vaccinated people believe they are fully protected from the virus, they may lower their guard and cease mitigation measures such as social distancing, wearing a mask and washing their hands. If that happens, Chile’s vaccination campaign could have the opposite effect – causing more people to be infected by COVID-19. The country would then be hit by a third wave of infection. It is essential to urgently call on Chileans to continue to follow health advice.

The battle against the pandemic is not over.

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