By Orville Williams
Following news from the government that it has “acquired several industrial freezers” for the storage of Covid-19 vaccines when they arrive in the country, it has given assurance that the facilities will not lay idle after the pandemic subsides.
This week’s post-Cabinet report noted that it still remains unclear which Covid-19 vaccine the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) will be providing to the country under the COVAX mechanism – meaning Antigua and Barbuda is now playing a ‘blind’ waiting game, having already paid for 20,000 doses.
One concern stemming from that ‘lack of clarity’ is that there are some vaccines being developed that do not require the excessive temperature requirements as others. For example, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – which was approved for use in the UK just this week – requires extreme cold storage (minus 70 degrees Celsius), while the Moderna vaccine only requires minus 20 Celsius, akin to a regular food freezer.
The type of vaccines that are ultimately allotted to the country will therefore determine the usage of the storage facilities.
During the post-Cabinet media briefing yesterday, Information Minister Melford Nicholas explained that no matter the usage of the facilities in the short-term, they will be permanently integrated into the healthcare system.
“I would not say that the facilities we are now required to invest in will be anything like an albatross or sitting there underutilised; they will be an essential part of the health infrastructural facilities that we have on offer.
“So, it is not our loss and it is not an investment that is going to prove dysfunctional after we have overcome the challenges associated with Covid. We will have an infectious diseases centre that will be available to not only manage Covid, but any future infectious diseases that come our way,” Nicholas said.
The government has not yet revealed any specifics of the storage facilities acquired recently, but there is a common understanding that based on the potential vaccine requirements – including the extremely low storage temperature – they come at a significant cost.
In fact, the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was reportedly “advising state health departments against purchasing the ‘ultra-cold freezers’, estimated to cost between US$10,000 and $15,000”. This, as “vaccines with less demanding storage requirements are to be available soon”.
Minister Nicholas told the briefing that the advice to acquire the freezers had come from PAHO and he stressed that the acquisition should be seen as an investment, rather than a potential financial burden.
“We’re never going to return to the place we were before Covid. You would recall a few years ago, we had a scare in relation to Ebola and we have had other scares in relation to [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] SARS, hoof-and-mouth disease etc.
“In the course of our lives, there [are] going to be other infectious diseases [and] some may reach pandemic levels. The good thing about the facilities that we have now developed is that they can be repurposed to facilitate responses to any future occurrence.
“So, in as much as the investment is made and it will satisfy the short-term requirement of helping us through Covid, we will be better equipped [in] the period beyond Covid to deal with any future threats, the likes of Covid,” Nicholas explained.
Similar to the vaccine storage facilities, there is another Covid-19-related adjustment the Minister believes will be relevant long after the pandemic.
Nicholas said the Nomad Digital Residence Visa Programme – which allows individuals to live in and work from the ‘safety’ of Antigua and Barbuda – should continue to provide benefit once the pandemic ends.
“The expanded facilities that we have at Nugent Avenue as well, will be able to help us. These are going to be features of our jurisdiction that [are] going to help us in marketing ourselves as a place where people can feel comfortable to spend their vacation or to even become a nomad and to live with us.
“I don’t believe that the Nomad programme is going to ultimately disappear as well after Covid. I think it’s a novel way of attracting people to the jurisdiction and to expand our export services, for persons to be able to come here and to work from within our healthy environment,” he said.
The Covid-19 vaccines to be acquired by Antigua and Barbuda under the COVAX facility are slated to be available for distribution within the coming months.