"We haven't beaten the coronavirus! But we're getting there. However, we cannot be pleased when people die every day. I'll be happy the day when no patient dies, not on the day when we get no new infections. There can be 200 or 300 new infections, but if no one dies on that day, that's our greatest success.
"We shouldn't only look at the number of infections and hospitalizations, but also at the number of deaths and the number of patients in intensive care units," Professor Mijomir Pelemiš, infectious disease specialist and clinical pharmacologist, said in his interview with Kurir. A member of the Government of Serbia's Covid-19 Task Force, Pelemiš talked to Kurir in a park, as he doesn't go to cafés and coffeehouses since "the measures aren't adhered to in a sufficient degree there," and kept his face mask on even though we were outdoors. He didn't remove it for even a second, so that we could take a photo of him, "out of principle, as it should set an example for everyone."
But now the number of people in intensive care has dropped sharply.
"That's right! We're on track, but this doesn't mean we should lift the prevention measures. And we haven't – wearing face masks, physical distance, personal hygiene, airing of premises – it's all still in place."
After introducing a stringent measure – banning social gatherings of more than five people – the Task Force has now allowed 500.
"You've seen all those gatherings, that was already happening. But that's not up to us, we don't control the enforcement of the measures. The Task Force adopts measures, assesses the epidemiological situation based on its own and other countries' experiences, and puts forward the best possible solutions."
And do you personally support this drastic easing of restrictions?
"I do not. An abrupt easing of restrictions is never a good idea because people then think that we're done. We saw that last year. But, us in the medical wing of the Task Force provide opinions, and decisions are made by the Government."
Do you ever feel defeated?
"No, why should I? Sometimes I would do certain things differently, but don't consider myself so smart that everything should be my way."
Do you expect the hospitals to fill up again?
"No, because we have many vaccinated people. Not enough though."
We are stuck at 48 percent of the adult population, and can't seem to get ahead.
"I think we can. Our task is to motivate as many people as possible to get the vaccine at a point when we have so few infections."
"Why is it discriminatory and unconstitutional to grant privileges to the vaccinated? Why isn't it unconstitutional to be infected by those who don't want to adhere to the measures, or those who refuse the vaccine? Fine, they don't have to get the jab, but they should follow the measures. Those who organize various sorts of gatherings should implement the measures as it is their responsibility, not the Task Force's."
What sorts of incentives would you offer to those who have taken the jab?
"For young people, concert and festival tickets, prize contests, winning various sorts of things, even trips. They must empathize with the rest. And no one should claim that young people cannot get infected and develop a severe form of the disease."
'I WOULD MAKE VACCINATION COMPULSORY FOR HEALTH WORKERS, THE MILITARY, AND THE POLICE'
If it was up to you, would you introduce compulsory vaccination?
"Not for everyone, but definitely for some professions – healthcare workers, the police, the military. How can you take care of people if you get ill and if the system 'becomes ill' ?"
Don't you think it's a disaster that there are so many anti-vaxxers?
"There's no disaster. We need to be loud and clear about the fact that the coronavirus infection is much more dangerous than the vaccine. And many who have had Covid have quite serious problems now – with the heart, the lungs, the joints… "
Speaking of getting the disease, are you surprised by what the coronavirus does?
"By some things, to be sure, because it's an entirely new disease. But, there is no viral disease that doesn't attack all age groups, and this one is no exception. This was clear right from the start, although most scientists claimed that only the elderly could fall ill, and even that women couldn't. Hasn't time proven all of them wrong? Both young and old die, and everyone can develop a severe form of the disease. In recent months, the number of infected middle-aged and unvaccinated young people has been on the rise, both here and worldwide."
Is the fourth wave coming?
"Another wave is possible, but it cannot be the same as last year – many people have been vaccinated, and many have had the disease."
What about the third dose?
"At this point in time, there is no worldwide consensus regarding how to proceed with the vaccination, because the scientific research into administering these vaccines isn't complete yet. We will doubtless need to get vaccinated in the upcoming period, but that isn't an issue. We will take the vaccine as many times as necessary, just to be able to beat this epidemic."
When will we officially remove the face masks?
"Not any time soon, as the epidemic isn't over yet. In addition, the WHO needs to declare the end of the pandemic. There's also the question of how many people are tested, which is what really matters."
You mean how many people avoid getting tested?
"Absolutely! The issue here is how many people who have been tested were tested for reasons of travel and not because of having symptoms."
Do we have many more infections?
"Probably, but I don't know how many exactly. Luckily, we don't have many ill people, so the clinics have resumed normal operations. The Batajnica and Kruševac hospitals, the Infectious Diseases Clinic, and the infectious disease wards are still open. This can change very quickly if the measures aren't followed and there's no control."
'THERE IS NO EFFICIENT ANTIVIRAL DRUG FOR THIS VIRUS'
What medications have proven to be the best?
"The most efficient treatment is following the therapy protocols."
But you have changed several times the key antiviral drugs in the protocol.
"We change protocols based on the experiences of all the relevant institutions worldwide, scientific studies, and our own experiences. There is definitely no efficient antiviral drug for this virus. Self-medication is the greatest danger, and this is why those of us who are involved in this don't wish to discuss such issues in the media, as people misuse the information and self-medicate. As a result, they are hospitalized late and, sadly, things don't end well for them."
Can those vaccinated carry and transmit the virus?
"They can, but the percentage isn't certain yet."
What has been the biggest mistake since the arrival of the coronavirus?
"Perhaps the biggest mistake that we have made is the people's distrust of the health system. Maybe that's one of the reasons that initially things didn't work. But I think that trust is being regained and that people have understood."
Why are we so distrustful?
"That's our nature, and the reason for that is the fact that the health system didn't work so well in the past as it does now. Generally speaking, it is in people's nature not to like what is being imposed on them. Just look at how many vaccines they have in Russia, and people don't want to get vaccinated. In the EU countries, large mounted police forces had to break up gatherings organized to oppose the enforcement of measures. We haven't had that in Serbia. Serbia has been putting up an amazing fight against the epidemic, and we have excellent results compared to other countries. Never has a government been so supportive of the healthcare system – we've been able to admit all patients into hospitals, and never once faced a shortage of medications, equipment, or hospital beds."
What was your most difficult experience?
"When people suddenly started to die in large numbers, for example in the Niš care home. It was terrible for me, as were the deaths of my friends and colleagues. The death of any man is a tragedy for me."
ANOTHER COMPELLING REASON TO GET IMMUNIZED
Are you surprised by long Covid?
"Of course! That's yet another argument in favour of vaccination, because recovering from the infection doesn't mean being cured. There are many long Covid patients, and the Ministry of Health are working to provide adequate care for them. You know, when you're traveling to Africa, you must take the yellow fever shot and the malaria medication. No one has ever asked me if that vaccine is dangerous, what it contains, and what effect that medication can have on them.
"Do people realize that it's thanks to vaccines that we no longer have tetanus, tuberculosis, diphtheria, polio, whooping cough, measles, and smallpox? When I was starting out in 1978, patients died of these diseases every day, and they were mostly children. Now they're asking how come this vaccine was made so fast. For crying out loud, medical science has made progress! The amount of resources that the world has put into the vaccines guarantees that we will win the fight against the pandemic, but not quickly. Isn't it enough that Serbia has so many vaccines and that it was among the first ones in the world to get them? Their efficiency and safety have been proven, and we should be happy that we can choose our vaccine, seeing as others don't have any to begin with."
Kurir.rs/Jelena S. Spasić