But that hasn’t been enough to stop the spread of Covid.
On face value, the fact the Seychelles, with such high vaccination coverage, is still facing an outbreak calls into question whether countries can inoculate themselves out of the pandemic.
Experts and local officials, however, say the Seychelles outbreak isn’t a sign the vaccines aren’t working.
Either way, the tropical nation is a reminder that even countries with high levels of vaccination can’t drop their guard.
The situation in Seychelles
Just over a month ago, the Seychelles was so confident with its Covid-19 handling that it dropped restrictions for most tourists.
It’s not clear what led to the spread, although Sylvestre Radegonde, the minister for foreign affairs and tourism, said the virus had likely been in the country all along and had spread as vaccination made people more complacent. Improved contact tracing and testing had also helped authorities catch more cases.
“Over the last few months, after vaccination, people have seen that anybody getting infected is not getting seriously sick, nobody is dying, nobody is getting a lot of complications,” he said. People in the islands — who he said love to party — have been socializing without taking precautions. “People have let down their guard.”
Around 37% of positive cases from the week to May 8 had been fully vaccinated, the government said, although it has not released data on which vaccines they received. The government hasn’t released data on the age breakdown of Covid-19 patients.
Radegonde said Thursday that only two people in the country are in intensive care.
“The conclusion is that the vaccines are protecting the people. Those who have been vaccinated are not developing any complications,” Radegonde said. “We remain confident that the vaccines — both of them — have helped the country. Things would have been worse.”
CNN has reached out to the Seychelles Ministry of Health and the Health Care Agency for comment.
What this tells us about vaccines
To some, vaccinated people getting sick with Covid seems to suggest the vaccines aren’t working. But local authorities, experts and the World Health Organization (WHO) say the Seychelles’ experience is broadly in line with expectations.
Dr Richard Mihigo, program coordinator for vaccine preventable diseases, at WHO regional office for Africa, said Seychelles’ data matched evidence Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and deaths.
“Until everyone is protected, there is no reason why the disease would not continue to spread,” he said in an email, adding that WHO teams are continuing to review the data, assess progress, and understand the trends in the country.
Michael Z. Lin, associate professor of neurobiology and bioengineering at Stanford University, said vaccine efficacy rates meant about 20% of the population would still be susceptible to the virus, even if they were all vaccinated.
“It’s not a surprise if the virus is going to continue infecting some people, the unvaccinated and some breakthrough cases of the vaccine,” he said.
But on the positive, people who had been vaccinated seemed to have a lower chance of being hospitalized with Covid than those who hadn’t been vaccinated, he said.
Of course, there are gaps in the data — crucial things that would give us a better idea of how the vaccines perform.
It’s not clear, for instance, what proportion of positive cases took Covishield compared with Sinopharm.
What does this mean for life post-vaccination?
The Seychelles is a reminder that even after widespread vaccinations, infections are unlikely to stop completely.
The vaccines available are able to reduce serious infections, although they may not give sterilizing immunity — or complete protection — against Covid-19, said Jeremy Lim, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
“It’s just a reflection of perhaps how naive or how how foolishly optimistic we are,” he said.
But Cassie Berry, a professor of immunology at Murdoch University in Perth, notes the situation in the Seychelles wouldn’t necessarily be mirrored worldwide.
Lin said that getting any vaccine was “more desirable” than remaining unprotected and being exposed to the 1% death rate of the disease. “The vaccines have been very effective at preventing death,” Lin added. “It’s definitely advantageous to take the vaccine you can get, rather than wait for something perfect.”
A cautionary tale
The Seychelles is a vaccine success story. But it’s also a cautionary tale that vaccines aren’t a cure-all — and that countries need to be wary of new variants and transmission, Berry said.
“We’re all racing to be vaccinated, but we still need to remember social distancing and fresh air and masks are very good at preventing transmission,” she said. “I think it’s going to simmer for quite some time.”
Bouey said there was increasing consent among public health professionals that while vaccines are critical for mitigating Covid-19, they won’t eliminate transmissions or outbreaks.
“Covid is not going to suddenly disappear. The most likely scenario is that the world will just have to live with Covid,” National University of Singapore’s Lim said.
That’s certainly the attitude in the Seychelles, where tourism took a devastating hit last year. With widespread vaccination, Radegonde said getting seriously ill from Covid was less of a concern — a bigger concern was the impact higher case numbers could have on the economy.
So far, there’s been no impact — around 500 visitors are arriving each day, said Radegonde, the tourism minister.
“If the situation worsened to such an extent that the tourists stop coming, it would be a big worry,” he said. “Seychelles remains open to visitors. We welcome everybody. We have absolutely no intention to change that.”
Seychelles appears to have adopted the view that Covid with minor symptoms is an acceptable price to pay.
But while it was fine to have Covid circulating in their populations, countries needed to do more than just vaccinating, Lim said. That included adequate border control, widespread testing, and hospitals that had capacity to cope with outbreaks.
Stanford’s Lin agreed: “You can’t just throw away the public health playbook once you’ve vaccinated 60% of your population.”