Region urged to make vaccine readiness number one priorityThursday, February 18, 2021
BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS
DIRECTOR of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr Carissa F Etienne has urged countries in the region, that are in the lead to receive the first tranche of COVID-19 vaccines under the COVAX facility, to make the most of the early doses and use them as a test run for their immunisation systems and overcome barriers before more doses are rolled out.
COVAX, a coalition led by World Health Organization (WHO) and the Gavi Alliance to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, aims to provide access to almost 2.3 billion doses of vaccines this year. Of this, 35.3 million doses of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine are slated for 36 Caribbean and Latin American states from mid-February to the end of June.
Jamaica itself is on stream to get between 146,400 and 249,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines through the facility towards the end of this month to vaccinate approximately 125,000 citizens. At the same time the Government has indicated that it is involved in bilateral talks with other countries to receive additional supplies of vaccines.
The hope is to vaccinate some 440,000 people by year end.
Yesterday, Dr Etienne, speaking during PAHO's weekly virtual briefing, said “over the coming days countries will face important tests as they prepare for the delivery”.
“Any small delay could set vaccinations back weeks, so countries must make vaccine readiness their number one priority at this time,” she advised.
Said Dr Etienne: “Because these vaccines are new they need to be approved for use in every country, each country has its own laws and regulations so we urge ministries of health, regulatory agencies and other officials to review requirements for each COVAX vaccine to avoid delays in shipments.”
All countries, she added, must also make every effort to ensure that they hire and train the staff necessary to conduct mass immunisations.
“These first doses will also allow countries to test their immunisation systems and overcome barriers before more doses are rolled out,” she stated.
“We will have challenges, we will face barriers, we will see new problems but we will overcome them by working together,” the PAHO director general added, noting that the entity is “working non-stop to ensure that our member states are prepared for the arrival of vaccines.
“For months PAHO has negotiated directly with manufacturers to streamline agreements under the COVAX mechanism and reduce the burden on governments. PAHO has worked with WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank to set up a vaccine introduction readiness tool used by over 31 countries in our region,” Dr Etienne said.
In the meantime, she said the region was working hard to prepare for the delivery of the vaccines with the 10 countries that have already qualified to receive doses at no cost “ready for their first shipment” while the 27 others that will be purchasing vaccines through COVAX are “nearly there”.
“In the next few days and weeks, countries participating in COVAX will receive confirmation of the timeline and number of doses for their first shipment from COVAX. Since the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines remains limited countries should expect that this first deployment would be small. Around 160 million doses will be distributed in our region in the first semester with doses ramping up every month. Rest assured, PAHO is doing everything it can to expand vaccine availability and to get vaccines out quickly,” she added.
She said to make the most of these early doses, PAHO is urging countries to prioritise health workers and those at greatest risk like the elderly to decrease the burden on hospitals, reduce deaths and save lives.
“Over the last week more than 1.2 million people in the Americas were infected with COVID-19 and 39,000 died because of the virus and while these numbers are staggering, they represent a 10 per cent drop from weeks past, proof that public health interventions are helping us keep the virus at bay,” Dr Etienne stated.
She further noted that across North America new infections were declining, giving hospitals much needed reprieve, while every country in Central America was also experiencing reductions in cases, except for Honduras which throughout 2021 has consistently reported a rise in infections. The PAHO director also said in South America, Uruguay is finally seeing a dip in cases after a difficult start to the year. She, however, noted that while most countries are reporting downward trends, there are a few hot spots particularly near the border between Peru, Colombia and Brazil. She said in the Caribbean, larger more populous islands like the Dominican Republic continue to drive new infections in the region although smaller islands like Aruba, Barbados, St Lucia and, St Vincent and the Grenadines are reporting an increase in cases.
Two months since the first vaccine was delivered, nearly 63 million people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 across the Americas. Dr Etienne, however, in pointing out that the majority of these vaccinated are from the northern countries, said while these numbers are encouraging they are not enough.
“To benefit from the collective immunity of vaccines, herd immunity, coverage must be very high. More than 700 million persons throughout the Americas would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to ensure a 70 per cent coverage. This would be no easy task so we count on the full commitment of our member states and the global community to protect the peoples of the Americas.
“We are working with COVAX to bring us closer to this goal, but we must also urge donors, pharmaceutical companies and international organisations to support the Americas so that we have enough vaccines to do what we do best, expand immunisation to save lives,” she said.
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