Expert group now in place to decide which vaccine A&B receives

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by Gemma Handy

Efforts to inform and update the nation about Covid-19 vaccines are being stepped up – but government warns their arrival into Antigua and Barbuda is still “several months” away.

A body of local medical experts who will be tasked with choosing which vaccine the nation receives – and who should be prioritised to receive it – has now been assembled.

The national technical working group was formally launched this week in line with requirements from regional agencies leading the vaccines’ distribution.

Health Minister Molwyn Joseph said the group – chaired by pathologist Dr Lester Simon – comprised some of the country’s “brightest minds”.

They also include Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas, paediatrician Dr Shivon Belle-Jarvis, and Dr Courtney Lewis, assistant professor at the American University of Antigua, among others such as GPs and government department representatives.

COVAX – the World Health Organisation-led scheme to deliver Covid-19 shots to poorer countries – is keen to ensure residents in member nations receive independent, evidence-informed advice on vaccine-related issues.

Joseph said the working group would advise Cabinet on the best policies to adopt ahead of a national inoculation roll-out. The experts will be responsible for reviewing data, information and recommendations from overseas public health agencies and vaccine manufacturers.

Government had hoped the first batch of shots would arrive on island in the first quarter of 2021. Mass vaccination is widely seen as a vital tool in stemming local coronavirus infection rates, eventually paving the way to a relaxation of state of emergency measures. But public scepticism on account of the shots’ rapid pace of development remains high.

Minutes from Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting sent to media said that, despite delays to distribution, using the COVAX facility guaranteed “a significant supply”.

Yesterday, the number of active cases in Antigua and Barbuda reached 12 with four new ones confirmed. Barbuda also recorded its first case on Thursday.

COVAX’s goal is to deliver two billion vaccine doses to people in participating countries across the world by the end of 2021.

The scheme has been beset by a number of issues, including a shortage of doses of approved shots and a lack of cash.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday that it had now secured contracts of two billion doses of “safe and effective” vaccines, which it was ready to rollout as soon as they were delivered.

But its Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned the latter was where the “challenge” lies.

Rich countries have bought up the majority of the supply of multiple vaccines,” he told a media briefing. “Going forward, I want to see manufacturers prioritise supply and rollout through COVAX.”

On Thursday, Information Minister Melford Nicholas told a press conference that the government was considering contingency plans to safeguard the Antigua and Barbuda population against any additional delays.

“We have given consideration to sourcing vaccines from elsewhere should the COVAX process become too long-winded,” he said.

“Once we have a clear indication from the WHO and PAHO in terms of the settled panel of vaccines they would recommend, we are going to be relying heavily on that.

“Clearly if they are not available immediately through COVAX, the government will examine other modalities to be able to get that panel of vaccines available to our population – so we can be assured of that,” Nicholas added.

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