THE Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is ramping up efforts to have COVID-19 vaccines manufactured within the Latin American and Caribbean region in order to accelerate vaccination coverage and reduce dependency on global supplies.
Head of PAHO Dr Carissa Etienne said on Wednesday that the region has imported nearly all the medical products it uses in the COVID-19 response, and is now paying the price of that dependency, facing continued delays in production.
“But our region has the capacity and expertise to lessen our dependence on global suppliers,” she said at the organisation's weekly press briefing on the effects of the pandemic in the region.
She said after reviewing more than 30 proposals, an external and independent committee of experts selected two projects — the public producer Bio-Manguinhos Institute of Technology on Immunobiologicals at Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil, and the private company Sinergium Biotech in Argentina — to receive technical support from PAHO and the World Health Organization (WHO), to speed up the development and production of mRNA vaccines, utilising the same technological platform that is used by Pfizer and Moderna.
“This is a strategic initiative because mRNA technology can also be used to develop other virus vaccines for relevant public health problems in our region such as Zika, dengue fever and others. Both of these institutions that were chosen have a long track record of vaccine manufacturing and will build on this legacy to protect people across the region from the threat of COVID and from future health risks. All vaccines that will be produced under this initiative will be available to all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean through PAHO's Revolving Fund benefiting the entire region,” she said.
Cuba, the first country in the region to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, has started commercial exports of the three-dose Abdala vaccine, sending shipments to Venezuela and Vietnam.
Dr Etienne noted, however, that given the many steps to making vaccines, PAHO is inviting public and private pharmaceutical manufacturers across the region that have the capacity to develop and produce essential components for the mRNA vaccines to become a part of this platform. Applications are open until October 15.
She said over the next few months PAHO will work closely with the COVAX mechanism to deliver tens of millions of doses of vaccines to the region — targeting countries with low vaccine coverage such as Jamaica.
While the drive intensifies to manufacture vaccines in the region, PAHO said it continues to use all possible strategies to access more doses, advancing discussions with vaccine manufacturers to purchase additional vaccines on behalf of member countries.
She noted that PAHO has helped COVAX to deliver 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the region, including nearly 14 million which were donated.
“We have the capacity to quickly scale this support, so we urge countries not to delay their donations as lives hang in the balance today,” she stressed.
Meanwhile, Dr Etienne pointed out that administering vaccines requires more than just doses, and that more syringes are needed as vaccination campaigns ramp up.
The director said PAHO has already secured more than 150 million syringes for member states, and arrangements are being finalised for shipments for the remainder of this year, and consolidation of country demands for syringes for 2022.
More than one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the Latin America and Caribbean region, which has 35 per cent full vaccination coverage against the virus.