More than six million people in Spain now have the full protection offered by the Covid-19 vaccines being used by the country’s health authorities. After a slow start to the campaign in the first quarter of the year, the speed of the process is getting faster every week, and yesterday saw Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez venture to put a date on the end of the health crisis: August 18. “We are just 100 days from achieving group immunity,” he announced. “That’s to say, managing to vaccinate 70% of the Spanish population, thus immunizing them.” Group or herd immunity refers to a situation where sufficient levels of the population are protected against the virus so as to impede its circulation.
Spain has administered 19 million doses of the four vaccines being used so far, and 29% of the population has received at least one shot. The government is due to receive 30 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech medication, 18 million doses of the Moderna, seven million of the Oxford-AstraZeneca and 17 million doses of the Janssen, all of which are expected to arrive before the end of the third quarter. All require two doses for full protection apart from the latter, which is a single-shot pharmaceutical.
In recent weeks the campaign has reached cruising speed, and in the month of April more doses were injected than in the first three months of the year: 8.33 million shots compared to 8.04 million in January, February and March. “We are starting to overcome this disaster,” added the prime minister, who was speaking during an official visit to Greece.
The first objective of the Spanish government, that of fully inoculating five million people by the first week of May, has been met – but the battle is far from over. Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), held a press conference on Monday evening to present the latest coronavirus data for the country. The government’s chief epidemiologist was clearly annoyed and said he was “disappointed” by scenes of partying crowds across Spain on Saturday night, after the state of alarm expired and the toughest restrictions on mobility and socializing lapsed.
“If we manage to have the [vaccine] coverage that we hope to have within 100 days, and if in that intervening period the population manages to maintain adequate prevention measures, we could have more normal social interaction. But that is not to say that we can no longer continue with some precautions until there is global coverage,” he said.
According to the Health Ministry report released last night, the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants is still falling, coming in at 189 on Monday. This, however, is still a relatively high level, and the situation in five of Spain’s regions – Aragón, Madrid, Navarre, Basque Country and La Rioja – continues to be very serious, with the rate above 250.
“Until a few days ago I would have said that we were going to continue with a downward trend, but now I don’t know,” Simón continued on Monday, in reference to the scenes of partying from the weekend. “Neither I nor anyone in Spain knows what is going to happen in the coming days, or how many people will end up being admitted to [intensive care units],” he complained.
The progress of the vaccine campaign is already having an effect on the epidemiological curve of the health crisis in Spain
In contrast to his unease with the situation after the state of alarm, Simón celebrated the progress of the vaccination campaign, one of the factors, he explained, “that is going to help” to combat the virus. The regions – which are in charge of their own campaigns – have now administered at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine to most of the vulnerable groups, specifically 87% of the over-60s. In fact, 40% of this segment are now fully protected.
By target group, residents of care homes and the over-80s are already fully protected. Meanwhile, 92.5% of the over-70s have received a single dose, while the percentage is as high as 75% among the 60-to-69 group.
In fact, the regional administrations have decided to speed ahead of the central government’s own strategy, and have already begun to use the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines on the under-60s. The central Public Health Commission will be studying the possibility of lowering the target age groups for the Janssen vaccine, which until now is only being used on the over-60s due to the fear of rare blood clots among younger age groups. There have been similar issues with the AstraZeneca vaccine, something that has limited its use among the Spanish population so far.
The progress of the vaccine campaign is already having an effect on the epidemiological curve in Spain, and on the country’s hospitals. According to the Health Ministry report released on Tuesday, the effectiveness of the vaccine on residents of care homes is 80%, while the process has avoided 71% of hospitalizations and 82% of deaths. What’s more, the ministry has confirmed that the average age of positive cases since the third wave, which took place during the start of the vaccination campaign, has fallen from 42 to 40, while the average age of intensive care unit patients has gone down from 63 to 60.
Despite the good pace of the vaccination drive, the experts are still calling for caution. “Group immunity is measured by the reproduction rate [the so-called R number], and the infectivity of the virus,” explained Marcos López Hoyos, the president of the Spanish Society of Immunology. “For the measles, you need to have more than 90% [of the population] vaccinated. With Covid they are saying 70% or 80%. We will see what happens according to the rates of infection and incidence. The important thing is to vaccinate and for the incidence to stay low. If people see announcements about group immunity and the state of alarm is lifted, people could relax and this mustn’t happen,” he continued.
Take nothing for granted
José Luis Barranco, spokesperson for the Spanish Society of Preventive Medicine, Public Health and Hygiene, agrees with this thinking. “We are very worried about the weekend,” he said, in reference to the scenes of crowds on the streets partying. “If people get infected now it won’t overwhelm our health system, but it will mean that the virus is circulating for longer. And that is an opportunity for the disease to reach a vulnerable person, even if they are vaccinated, because the virus may not respond to that vaccine.”
Nothing can be taken for granted, the experts agree. There are a lot of variables that could still interrupt the speed of vaccination, such as problems in the supply chain or the appearance of new variants that evade the protection offered by the inoculations. “Vaccines appear to be offering protection from variants, by humoral [antibody-mediated] and cellular immunity,” explained López Hoyos. “But apart from quickly vaccinating here [in Spain], we mustn’t forget to vaccinate the rest of the world so that new variants do not arrive and give us a shock.”
Barranco insisted that the key will be “that vaccines arrive when they need to arrive and that there is the operational might to administer them.”
English version by Simon Hunter.