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10 May 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 2:26pm

Why is the highly vaccinated Seychelles experiencing a Covid spike?

Despite fully vaccinating more than 60 per cent of its adult population, Covid-19 cases are surging on the archipelago. 

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

It would be fair to say that the Seychelles is a model country when it comes to vaccination. More than 60 per cent of adults on the archipelago have already received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, surpassing other success stories such as Israel and the UK and making it the most-vaccinated country in the world.

But despite this, a sudden surge in cases in the Seychelles has led to the reimposition of restrictions, including school closures, leaving many wondering what might be behind the rise, and what it signals for vaccination programmes across the world.

Authorities say there are just over 1,000 active cases, with around 65 per cent coming from those who are unvaccinated or have only received one dose. What is most concerning is that the remaining third of cases are among those who have received both doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, which accounts for the majority of vaccinations in the Seychelles.

Despite widespread vaccination, there is a Covid-19 spike in the Seychelles
Vaccination rate versus latest Covid-19 confirmed cases for 20 countries to have administered most vaccine doses

Last week the country recorded 497 new coronavirus cases in three days (29 April-1 May), which amounts to 0.5 per cent of the population. 

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With so many people catching the virus during such a short period of time, authorities are extremely worried. “Despite all the exceptional efforts we are making, the Covid-19 situation in our country is critical right now,” said the Seychelles health minister, Peggy Vidot, on 4 May. 

Health officials have said little about the cause of the spike, though they suggest that extra social mixing over the Easter period may partially account for the rise, Bloomberg reports. While mask wearing and social distancing are encouraged in the Seychelles, social restrictions have been minimal in comparison to  other countries. 

The Seychelles began to vaccinate its 98,000-strong population in January using the Chinese-produced Sinopharm vaccine, which was donated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The efficacy of the Sinopharm vaccine, which accounted for 59 per cent of all Seychellois vaccinations by mid-April, is contested. Separate trials in China and the UAE have put its efficacy at 79 and 86 per cent respectively, but in general the Sinopharm vaccine should offer good protection. 

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Alongside the Sinopharm jab, the Seychelles has used AstraZeneca vaccines made under licence in India to race through its vaccination programme, in part to help bolster the country’s tourism industry, which depends heavily on foreign travellers. But this push seems to be having an adverse effect: authorities say 16 per cent of active cases on the island are among foreigners, who are free to travel to the island without quarantining, regardless of their vaccination status, provided a negative PCR test is returned 72 hours before departure.

However, while the Seychelles experience is making headlines, it is an outlier. The general global trend still shows that vaccination is preventing surges: Israel, Malta and the UK are among the countries where a high vaccination rate has reduced the spread of Covid-19.

As for the Seychelles, mixing between those yet to be vaccinated and those who have only received their first dose  and are therefore not fully protected may account for a majority of active cases. Among those who are fully vaccinated, mixing with unvaccinated people prior to getting a second shot, or mixing immediately after and therefore not allowing the vaccine to take full effect, may account for the rise in cases, Francois Balloux, the director of the UCL Genetic institute, told me.

Nobody can yet be sure what is behind the spike in the Seychelles, but many across the world will continue to watch closely.