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By Elesha George

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Parliamentarians including Cabinet ministers were among the second group of people to become vaccinated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Thursday at the conference room of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Health Minister, Sir Molwyn Joseph, was the first parliamentarian to take the vaccine but not before stating that the vaccines would “add more weaponry in fighting Covid-19”.

“Today the Cabinet will arm itself of that defence and that is to be immunised,” he remarked shortly before taking the first dose.

The vaccination rollout which began on Wednesday marked the start of a national programme that the health ministry anticipates will achieve the initial inoculation of thousands of people within the next 60 days.

“Each of us will have to go into our constituencies and we’ll have to do the work to encourage our constituents to be responsible,” the health minister stressed.

The government hopes to inoculate at least 80 percent of the population in order to achieve herd immunity. For example, if 80 percent of the people living in Antigua and Barbuda are immune to SARS-CoV-2, four out of every five people who encounter someone with the virus won’t get sick and won’t spread the disease any further. In this way, the spread of Covid-19 is kept under control. 

The second dose of AstraZeneca must be taken in the next 12 weeks to complete the inoculation process. The Cabinet has decided to disseminate vaccines free of cost to the population, regardless of individual means.

Nurses and other medical practitioners have been asked to work on a seven-day rotation in order to facilitate the vaccination programme which saw the inoculation of 64 health professionals on the first day.

These persons would have been registered, vaccinated and then monitored for 15 minutes to ensure that there were no major side effects.

While AstraZeneca has been approved for safe use globally, side effects or symptoms may be experienced, including soreness at the injection site, slight temperature, body aches and a general feeling of discomfort.

“We’re actually introducing a modified form of the organism into the body [and] there will be a response and that’s what we expect, that’s what we want. Part of our natural immune system is that when we do get an immune response there is memory, so if we are infected another time our body would remember and we would be able to fight the disease more rapidly,” explained Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ronda-Sealey-Thomas.

The “mobile vaccination” – which will see nurses go directly to vaccine recipients – is just another phase of the programme and will be followed by plans to increase vaccination sites as more vaccines become available.

The Public Education Sub-Committee headed by the CMO has been tasked to create a plan to promote acceptance of Covid vaccines.

It “will recruit many of the most influential voices in the state to provide education and public announcements that will attempt to sway the majority away from the anti-vaxxers’ negative messages,” Cabinet stated.

At the end of the process, those inoculated will be issued with a document certifying that they have been vaccinated for Covid-19. Certificates will be available for persons who have successfully taken complete doses of the administered vaccines.

To strengthen the programme, the government plans to employ a number of strategies to ensure vaccine certificates can be authenticated.

Information Minister Melford Nicholas said the certificate will be available in several forms to include digital and print and will be barcoded for authenticity.

Certificate information, he said, is unlikely to be duplicated because of the system the government plans to use to store that information.

“In addition to that, the electronic records including facial identification is something that’s going to be kept in the registry … and this vaccination registry will be codified in such a manner that the interrogation of this registry can be made available to other immigration and other authorities across the globe,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health is waiting for the Antigua and Barbuda Pharmacy Council to authorise for local use five more vaccines: SputnikV from Russia, the Sinopharm from China, the Soberana2 from Cuba, and the USA’s Pfizer and Moderna shots.

AstraZeneca has already been approved by the Council.

The government is also awaiting the donation of 40,000 additional doses of AstraZeneca (called Covishield in India), manufactured in India and to be gifted by India, to arrive in Antigua before February 28.

“The mechanisms are being put in place to distribute the vaccines to clinics and to private doctors among others; one condition of the free supply to private medical practitioners is that no one is to pay for the service or the product. An additional 100,000 vaccines are being sought from India,” Cabinet notes read.