JAMAICANS who received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine will soon have access to booster shots, says health minister Dr Christopher Tufton.
He was responding to the jitters and concerns of the wider public that booster shots should be made available to vaccine-resolute individuals to eliminate the dumping of the commodity that the country has been doing when vaccines reach their expiry date.
Of the roughly two million doses of vaccines that Jamaica has received to aid in its fight against the novel coronavirus, approximately 15 per cent or about 300,000 have been dumped, ministry officials have said. The latest dump occurred on Tuesday, November 30, when 130,000 doses of the AstraZeneca brand were dumped.
The waste which public health experts say is commensurate, while not desirable, with global standards of 10 to 30 per cent discard rates has been criticised by vaccine-resolute individuals.
Dr Tufton, however, cautioned that the justification for booster shots cannot be linked only to vaccine expiration dates.
“Offers of boosters have to be driven by research and the science, with the safety of Jamaicans being paramount,” he told the Jamaica Observer. “As of now, based on vaccines we have here, boosters have been recommended by the respective manufacturers and regulatory agencies for Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson but not AstraZeneca.
“For AstraZeneca there is a recommendation for people who have compromised immune systems, like cancer patients, to get a third dose. The manufacturers of this brand are reviewing but that's the current situation. I understand the drive for boosters for Astra but it has not yet been recommended by the manufacturers. It would not be responsible to offer just because we have stocks that are soon to expire. That would make expiration date the criteria, not the safety of the citizen.”
Based on this premise, Dr Tufton said the health ministry is prepared to offer boosters to Pfizer and is currently reviewing the feasibility, based on availability of stocks and the period after taking the second dose when a booster is due — normally after six months. He added that not many Jamaicans have passed their six month after second dose as yet, so there is still some way to go before a booster is offered.
Regarding the Johnson and Johnson vaccines, Dr Tufton told the Sunday Observer that boosters can be given and there is enough stocks so an announcement is likely to be made soon.
He said: “These issues are fluid so we keep tracking and assessing and we are prepared to change as new information emerges but always with the safety of the citizens in mind.”
Meanwhile, there are questions around whether the vaccines Jamaica dumped could have been donated to neighbouring countries.
Permanent secretary in the health and wellness ministry, Dunstan Bryan said it is dependent on the countries that Jamaica is donating to.
“That would be our Caribbean colleagues who are all in the same situation that we are in, where they have received donations as well and are trying to utilise as best as they can before expiration date. So most of the other Caribbean countries are in a similar situation like Jamaica where they have had vaccines expire on them and they have had to discard. We're all in the same state of the implementation where we've hit the people who are willing to take, and we're now at the people who we have to convince to take and so your uptake levels are going to be very slow as you do the hard march to convince people to take,” Bryan said.
The permanent secretary further clarified that the close to 300,000 vaccines dumped were not purchased by the government, so to put a dollar figure on the waste was difficult.
“The vaccines we have had to discard are vaccines that have been donated. Vaccines that we purchase, we purchase with a shelf life of the actual date of manufacturing. For example, for the AstraZeneca — it has a shelf life of six months. Therefore, when we purchase AstraZeneca, the shelf life of it would be six months, so none of it would have been due for expiration any time soon. But if we get it as a donation, it would have been in the donating country for sometime. For example, when we got the donation from United Kingdom in July, it had a two months expiration date, when the usual shelf life is six months. So, we had two months to use a supply that would normally have resulted in a six-month life span.
“The COVAX vaccines that we do receive we utilise because they are purchased vaccines and not vaccines that have close expiration dates. The vaccines that we get from these bilateral agreements are usually vaccines with close expiration dates, because the donor country would have recognised they would not be able to utilise the vaccines before expiration and so they offer them for donations and then it's up to the receiving country to do their best efforts to utilise them before the expiration date,” Bryan said.