Country still awaiting more COVAX vaccines

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By Orville Williams

[email protected]

It is still not clear precisely when Antigua and Barbuda will receive the additional vaccine doses expected through the global COVAX scheme, even though thousands of doses are scheduled to be shipped to neighbouring territories in the coming days and weeks.

Director of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr Carissa Etienne, gave an update on upcoming COVAX shipments during a media briefing yesterday – but no mention was made of Antigua and Barbuda.

“We are happy to report that nearly 100,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in El Salvador [on Tuesday], another 140,000 doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines are en route to Bolivia, Grenada, and St Vincent and the Grenadines [and] they should arrive in the next 24 hours.

“We’re also pleased to hear that following the resolution of ongoing discussions, the first Covid-19 vaccines will be arriving in Haiti in the coming weeks, possibly June,” Dr Etienne disclosed.

Early last month, 24,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were received by health officials at the VC Bird International Airport via COVAX, with 16,000 still outstanding from an order of 40,000.

Health Minister, Sir Molwyn Joseph, could not be reached for an update up to press time yesterday, but the expectation apparently remains for the doses to be delivered at the end of the month, as Information Minister, Melford Nicholas, explained last week.

“The Minister of Health did not give an indication [on Wednesday] as to whether or not there has been any change in the promise from COVAX, to produce the remaining 16,000 vials by the end of this month.

“It is a position that we’ll have to verify, but that was the last information that we had,” Nicholas said.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas also confirmed last week she had received no information to the contrary.

Concerns remain about the feasibility of getting the additional vaccines through COVAX, given the position taken by the Serum Institute of India (SII) – that supplies vaccines to COVAX and several other entities – to halt the export of vaccines until at least the end of the year.

This does not serve to discourage the feeling within some territories that the COVAX facility is somewhat unreliable, given the early delays that frustrated countries who had signed up since last year.

Now, the government is optimistic that the SII’s position won’t affect the arrangement that Antigua and Barbuda has with COVAX, as it was made way before these recent developments.

Nevertheless, Dr Etienne expressed caution when speaking on the immediate future of vaccine acquisition, given the expansion of vaccination programmes and subsequent demand for doses in bigger countries.

“We continue to urge the global community to help us expand vaccine coverage in the Americas. In the short term, as supplies are limited, vaccine donations offer us the best chance to fill immediate gaps.

“Spain has generously agreed to donate five million Covid-19 vaccine doses – that’s about five to 10 percent of their total vaccine supply – to Latin America and the Caribbean. We’re also very grateful to the government of Canada, which has committed CAD$50 million to support our work in expanding access to Covid vaccines in the region.”

She also reminded vaccine manufacturers, along with competing agencies and countries, to ensure they consider equity when vaccine supplies begin to increase in a couple of months.

It remains to be seen whether that advice will be considered, as fresh Covid-19 waves and infections by the new virus variants could force many to consider themselves first, just as India has had to do.

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