Trinidad and Tobago closes November with 12 deaths and 977 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. This total is an improvement from October, which had 1,161 confirmed cases and 31 deaths. The total number of active cases is now 778.
In November, there were two spikes in the number of cases, which epidemiologist Dr Avery Hinds said corresponded to a cluster of cases in the prison system. Since those cases were reported, the rolling 7-day average has dropped, returning to an earlier rate of about 30 cases per day.
Answering questions at the Ministry of Health’s media conference on 30 November, Dr Hinds emphasised that the rate of new cases was not higher because of how the population has followed the health guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.
“The 30-day number or rate is, therefore, not something that you’d use to say, ‘Ok, we’ve reached here, so now we can pull back,’ because it’s dependent of the behaviour of the population,” he said.
As to how we would know when the crisis was coming to an end and the population could be less vigilant, Dr Hinds said it could be a while, even when a vaccine comes.
“You have to see what kinds of numbers come out from the population, see what additional improvements those vaccines make to the rate of spread and then we can get a clearer idea of how close to the end of the tunnel we are,” he said.
Meanwhile, scientists continue to race towards producing a vaccine that would be approved for distribution as early as next year. Vaccines typically can take up to 10 years of development and testing before they are approved for use.
Dr Christine Carrington, professor of molecular genetics and virology at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus, explained how a combination of ‘organisation, preparation and serendipity’ allowed coronavirus vaccine to get to final-stage trials in under a year.
First, she said, because viruses had been appearing regularly, scientists had already been preparing strategies for launching a vaccine quickly. For this virus, they were also able to build on work done on previous coronaviruses and were helped by the structure of the virus.
In her presentation, Dr Carrington explained how a virus has proteins that our bodies recognise as foreign then launch an immune response to fight them off. Vaccines work by tricking the body into believing it has been infected, using a similar or modified virus or proteins from the infecting virus. The body remembers these foreign agents, so the immune system responds quickly to fight off an actual infection.
“There are some viruses where it’s difficult to find the right protein to use in a vaccine,” she said, “… Sometimes you have viruses that hide from the immune system, HIV is a good example of that. This virus, however, … it seems to have been a relatively easy target … antibodies against it seem to provide good protection.”
She added that much of the time spent developing a vaccine was what she called the downtime of writing grant proposals, getting funding and waiting for approvals. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, created a situation that called for the process to move swiftly.
“Because everybody is so focused – all the authorities, all the people involved, all the stakeholders – are focused on this one goal,” she said, “that movement from one stage to another, all that downtime, has been cut out.”
She insisted, however, that despite the shorter timeline, no shortcuts were taken and any vaccine that is approved will be safe.
“By the time the vaccine is approved,” she said, “we’ll be looking at a large pool of information with tens of thousands of people to determine if the vaccine is safe. And the vaccine will not be approved unless it reaches a certain threshold of safety.”