By Gemma Handy
Government remains hopeful that the first Covid-19 vaccines – deemed a crucial weapon in the global fight against the virus – will be available by early next year.
Whether or not the vaccine which comes to Antigua and Barbuda will be the one being created by Pfizer and BioNTech – and which has seen considerable success at trials as announced this week – is too early to say.
Minutes released to media from Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting declares it “likely” that a vaccine will be available within the first three months of 2021.
But Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas told Observer yesterday “it is not known which vaccine it will be or when it will arrive”.
Privately, some local physicians have expressed scepticism that any vaccine will be ready for distribution as soon as the government hopes.
What we do know is that its use in Antigua and Barbuda will be optional, with frontline workers – including medics and hospital staff, police and soldiers – among those who will be offered it first.
“The government has secured 20,000 doses in the first phase, and a priority list will determine who will be among the first persons to be voluntarily vaccinated,” Cabinet minutes said.
Neither is access to a vaccine likely to see much relaxation of rules governing things like mask-wearing and social distancing.
The Pfizer vaccine, which appears to be the most promising so far amid the 150-plus currently under development worldwide, showed a 90 percent efficacy rate in preventing Covid-19 among those without evidence of prior infection.
But that rate is likely to change when it is rolled out and governments will be keen to ensure any dip in infections is sustained. It is also not yet known if Pfizer’s vaccine actually halts person-to-person transmission.
Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, predicted that the BioNTech-Pfizer shot could see life return to “normal by Spring”. Logistics will be a big factor in whether or not that comes to fruition.
That particular vaccine, for example, must be stored at minus 70 or 80 degrees Celsius. And that will be a particular challenge for small nations with limited resources and tropical climates.
Information Minister Melford Nicholas told media yesterday that health chiefs were already working to address cold storage needs.
“The Minister of Health did indicate that the infrastructure that would need to be in place would include that minus 70-degree storage facility. He has said we may procure some of these cold storage containers, that we call ‘reefers’, to be able to satisfy that requirement,” he explained.
“So a battery of those type of reefers may need to be put in place with the necessary stable supply of electricity to ensure that, if in fact we have received these 20,000 vials, that they would be able to be stored in that particular arrangement.”
Nicholas said government had been promised that Antigua and Barbuda would receive the 20,000 doses. This is despite global aid chiefs warning earlier this week that poorer countries may not be a priority in light of the limited amounts pharmaceutical companies will be able to make.
“We did subscribe to the project headed by the World Bank, and we have paid the necessary contributions to ensure there is equitable distribution of these resources – and no hogging by the larger, more well-to-do countries,” he explained.
“We have an initial allocation of 20,000 vials of this particular vaccine that is being contemplated for distribution. Should there be another, we will have a similar allocation.
“So, yes, we are guaranteed a supply,” he told reporters, while cautioning that the “top-up process” after the initial quota is depleted was yet to be determined.
Nicholas said the vaccine would be administered according to advice from the World Health Organization (WHO), along with the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA).
He conceded that 20,000 doses may not be enough if voluntary uptake is high.
“We are going to have to rely on the health officials from the WHO in terms of the ratios that we’d have to have in place,” he said.
Another cause for concern among many is the speed with which a vaccine looks set to be brought to market. Typically, it takes 10 to 15 years to do so. The fastest developed to date was one for mumps which required four years in the 1960s.
Nicholas was asked at the press conference if the government had any concerns about prioritising frontline doctors and nurses in administering it as they could become “the first hit” by adverse side effects.
“We understand the concern about latent side effects because this is a more aggressive schedule for the approval for vaccines than has been done in the past,” he replied.
“This is going to be a voluntary arrangement so persons won’t be required by law or enforced to submit themselves to the taking of this vaccine.”
He added that the benefits should outweigh the risks in terms of the effect on tourism and international trade.
Last month it was announced that PAHO and CARPHA had secured down payments to buy more than one million Covid-19 vaccines for Caribbean nations – including Antigua and Barbuda – through funding from the European Union.
The down payment is approximately 15 percent of the value of vaccines that countries intend to procure in the future, ranging from 15-33 percent of their populations.
How things will ultimately play out as the world races to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 50 million people and devastated economies across the globe, remains to be seen. For now, most countries – including Antigua and Barbuda – must wait, see and hope.