The COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise, revealing a global failure to invest in pandemic preparedness. Scientists, looked upon to find a cure, had little time and a low margin for error.
And because the disease is novel and spreads fast, an infodemic – misconception, mistrusts, and scepticisms – sprung, putting pressure on fact-checkers and journalists to deliver accurate, balanced, and timely reports while countering false information.
Two issues remained contentious for more than a year after the pandemic broke: a growing debate on the efficacy of the treatment regimens for the disease and the safety concerns about COVID-19 vaccines.
For instance, the use of Ivermectin – a medication used to treat many types of parasite infestations – for treating COVID-19 has been a hot topic in the health community with many national health associations like the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. choosing to remain neutral, leaving the decision to physicians and their patients.
In Nigeria, the growing concerns about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccines are escalating an already flourishing scepticism and misconception.
Last week, Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) in partnership with the International Society of Media in Public Health (ISMPH) held a webinar to address some of the contentious issues surrounding vaccine safety and treatment of the disease.
Themed ‘Vaccines, Treatments and Stemming a Public Health Crisis’, the virtual event gave government officials, health and media experts from across Africa and the world the space to discuss these challenges and forge a new way forward.
Here are some key messages from speakers at the event:
Harmonizing COVID-19 response in ECOWAS countries
Nigerian journalist Moji Makanjuola, the moderator of the event, set the stage by underlining the importance of a harmonised COVID-19 response by all nations under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
She then introduced Joshua Obasanya, the COVID-19 coordinator at the West Africa Health Organization (WAHO).
WAHO has been designated as the lead agency to coordinate the COVID-19 ECOWAS regional response.
By its founding protocol and in line with the political mandate by the Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS countries, WAHO works collaboratively with governments, through the Ministries of Health and other key ministries, departments, and agencies, to safeguard the health of the population.
Mr Obasanya explained how a harmonised safety guideline would help tackle misinformation and foster compliance to safety protocols in the region.
He said a coordinated COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the region will improve access to the much-needed jabs.
He also highlighted challenges in West Africa’s COVID-19 response.
“There is lack of harmony of travel protocols among West African nations. If you are travelling from Nigeria to Ghana, for instance, the COVID-19 test you conducted in Nigeria may not be accepted in Ghana, meaning you must do a repeat test.
“Ideally, the cost for tests in travel portals should not cost more than $50 but some West African countries are charging as much as $90.
“These are some of the issues we are trying to address at WAHO,” he explained.
Mr Obasanya said WAHO is looking beyond the COVAX arrangement by trying to source about 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the region.
He said the agency is also trying to build the capacity of testing centres and the potential for vaccine production in the region.
The official said one of the biggest challenge in the region is getting people to comply with safety regulation and tackling rumors and misinformation.
Role of the media
Mia Malan, the founding editor of Bhekisisa, a South Africa health journalism platform, took the participants through the rigorous challenge of reporting on COVID-19.
Mrs Malan, a multiple award-winning journalist, said the complexity and the dynamics of the science of COVID-19 has made health reporting very hard and challenging.
“Ideally, the role of the media is to provide fair, balanced and accurate reporting on COVID-19 but the complex nature of the pandemic and the increasingly growing info-demic has made the job more challenging,” she explained.
“The reporting on COVID-19 requires an understanding of complex science, research, and regulatory approval processes in vaccine manufacturing.
“COVID-19 has changed all journalists into health reporters overnight. Countries approve vaccines in different ways and manufacturing processes for vaccines are more complex than for many other medicines.”
The journalist said the speed at which the science of vaccines and treatment regimen develop makes it hard for reporters to catch up.
“Preprints move so fast and so some of them are not even peer-reviewed. Once science gets it wrong, journalists will now struggle with reporting the facts.”
Mrs Malan itemised the basic expectation of journalists reporting on COVID-19.
“Our most basic duty is to inform. There’s so much information that people need which has led to this infodemic. It is our job as journalists to break down the science and explain things in such a way that people will get to understand accurately.
“In vaccine development for instance, we need to explain the complex issues such as how the vaccine works, the safety concerns, the impact and spread of the new COVID-19 variants.”
She said health journalists should do more explanatory and interpretative journalism.
Mrs Malan in her presentation also pointed out that it is the duty of the media to serve as a watchdog that will hold governments, international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), scientists, pharmaceutical companies and vaccine developers accountable.
In tackling misinformation and fake news, there must be accountability too, she said.
“We should go beyond, reporting and trying to challenge false and fake news. We should do more evidence-based journalism that will place the right information above the wrong ones.”
She urged scientists and researchers working in any field related to the pandemic to make themselves available for interviews.
“Scientists also have a role to play in accountability by independently reviewing the works of their colleagues.”
Mrs Malan also reaffirmed the need for journalists reporting on COVID-19 to get special training and mentoring.
Repurposing of drugs for COVID-19 treatment
With growing concerns over the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, the advocacy for the adoption of drugs repurposed for the treatment and prevention of the disease is increasingly gaining grounds.
One drug that has drawn a lot of debate in the health and science community is Ivermectin, an age old drug used for parasitic worm infestations which shot to limelight in the pandemic era as studies suggest that the drug in certain doses can kill COVID-19.
Ivermectin is known to have broad-spectrum antiviral properties, making it possible for it to kill or block a host of viruses.
While many scientists and health experts are calling for its adoption as a treatment regimen for COVID-19, others are questioning its efficacy and possible side effects pointing that there is insufficient data on trials for the drug.
Pierre Kory, an American critical care physician, gained attention for his advocacy for the use and recommendation of Ivermectin.
Mr Kory, the President of the Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC), appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last December and testified that Ivermectin is effectively a “miracle drug” against COVID-19 and called upon medical authorities to urgently review the latest data and then issue guidelines for health workers to prescribe Ivermectin for Covid-19.
During the virtual event, Mr Kory also explained why Ivermectin is effective in treating COVID-19.
He made presentations showing various studies that proved that the drug can be used as either prophylaxis or as a treatment regimen for COVID-19.
He also highlighted how several countries such as Peru has adopted the drug in their treatment guideline.
The debate over the use of Ivermectin has also become a hot topic in Africa.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) in late February advised African countries against the use of Ivermectin for treating COVID-19.
“Member States are advised against the use of Ivermectin for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 because there is no conclusive clinical data to support its safety and efficacy. The public is advised to adhere to country-specific guidelines for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19,” it said in a statement.
Meanwhile, authorities in Lagos, Nigeria’s COVID-19 epicentre, said they will deploy Ivermectin in a short clinical trial to ascertain its efficiency to prevent and treat COVID-19 infection.
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...