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By Carlena Knight

Local health officials have confirmed that Covid-19 vaccines should be available as early as the first quarter of next year.

The country is depending on an access facility called COVAX to secure thousands of vaccines.

COVAX was developed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission and France to help find a vaccine against Covid-19, and to ensure that everyone in the world has fair access to it.

Yesterday, Antigua and Barbuda’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr Rhonda Sealy-Thomas, said “they are looking at the first quarter of 2021” to bring it on stream.

The CMO, speaking at Friday’s Ministry of Health press conference, further explained the process through which the vaccines would be acquired.

“The process started with discussions with the Ministry of Health and the government of Antigua signing a letter agreeing to participate and commit,” she said.

“A down payment would have then had to be made, which was a requirement of WHO. Fortunately for us, Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) secured the down payment through a grant with the European Union for CARPHA member states.

“A guarantee for the balance of funds will have to be supplied to them,” Dr Sealey-Thomas said.

The Ministry of Health is working alongside Gavi to ensure that guarantee is covered. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is a public–private global health partnership with the goal of increasing access to immunisation in poor countries. It was founded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It is still not clear if this vaccine will have to be taken in one or two doses, but the elderly, children and frontline workers will be given priority among the 20,000 persons who have been singled out for the first batch early next year.

Dr Sealey-Thomas also explained that a national committee and technical group will have to be put in place to handle this matter.

“We have been working with the PAHO because all countries that participate in the COVAX facility have to come up with a plan.

“It has to be a national committee that develops this plan and will be responsible for implementation of the plan, including a technical group that will deal with the operational side of it,” she explained.

“Of course, we will have to prioritise and we have worked alongside CARPHA and PAHO to decide what segment of the population will be most vulnerable. For example, the elderly, that will be a population we will prioritise because we have seen that the elderly is most vulnerable to the complications of Covid.

“Children will of course be a priority because we see that some children develop an abnormal or different response to Covid-19. Fortunately for us, that has not happened in Antigua and Barbuda, and of course, our frontline workers.

“Our nurses and doctors – those who will actually have to take care of those who have Covid – they will be prioritised,” she said.

The top health official continued that while she understands some of the concerns raised by members of the public, she remains confident that this vaccine can be trusted.

“I understand the concerns that persons have. Traditionally, vaccine development would take a longer period of time, it involves the pre-clinical phase and the clinical trials and I think what has happened is that a lot of institutions and organisations have come together because of the seriousness of Covid and the impact it has globally on all countries.

“So, where we see a speeding up as to the process in terms of the trials, I think — and I have been in many presentations with Gavi and PAHO — it’s not that any safety has been compromised in order to make sure that the vaccine will be produced in a timely manner.

“Those protocols and safeguards are still in place and I am reassured that the vaccine that will be developed is safe for use,” she said.

The CMO, however, admitted that a lot of educational sessions will have to be carried out to help residents to fully understand this matter. These, she added, will also come on stream during the months ahead.

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