Public consultation to be held on Covid vaccines

Doctor disinfecting arm of patient in volunteer clinic
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by Gemma Handy

Thwarting the rhetoric of ardent anti-vaxxers – and boosting local confidence in Covid jabs – is the impetus behind a public consultation set to take place next week.

Health chiefs will stage the event at the Sandals Grande Antigua resort on Monday. It will see local experts in open dialogue with residents as the nation gets closer to receiving its first batch of vaccines early next year.

The consultation – announced by Health Minister Molwyn Joseph on Observer radio yesterday – will be held online with viewers invited to ask questions virtually. 

Joseph said the first-of-its-kind event was aimed at giving residents “credible information” amid widespread apprehension.

Faith in the vaccines has been stymied by the speed of their development. The UK will today give the very first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, the fastest vaccine created in history.

Typically, vaccines take 10 to 15 years to develop.

“The anti-vaxxers are around; they’ve been very busy suggesting that there is undue risk in taking this vaccine,” Joseph said yesterday.

“Next Monday, the Ministry of Health will be holding its first public consultation. We will be engaging the expertise of some of our doctors and scientists here to discuss this openly in the public,” he said.

“We are going to be absolutely transparent on this matter because we are confident that the vaccine has gone through appropriate scrutiny and we want the public to also develop some level of confidence,” the minister said.

Joseph continued that Antigua and Barbuda had “been served quite well” by childhood immunisation against illnesses which typically include diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella and polio.

The minister said the ‘messenger RNA’ technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna jabs – which are currently leading the vaccine race – had been around for several years.

“This is the kind of information we need to get out into the public to build confidence,” he said.

Known as mRNA vaccines, while they are new on the market, researchers have been studying and working with them for decades.

Unlike other types which put a weakened or inactivated germ into the body to trigger an immune response, mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein that provokes the immune response which then protects against infection if the real virus enters the body.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne recently declared he was willing to become the first recipient of a vaccine when it arrives in Antigua and Barbuda.

“The decision to take the vaccine is on the basis of information that’s credible and we need to get the general public to see it this way as well,” Joseph said.

Meanwhile, some of the Pan American Health Organization’s highest decision makers will be meeting this Thursday to discuss the rollout of the jabs across the region via the COVAX scheme.

Health ministers from each nation will be embroiled in talks with them, Joseph said.

And while precisely which jab the twin island nation is likely to receive is still not confirmed, he continued that one being developed by China was in the running.

“I think that the Chinese have now joined the COVAX facility so I think their vaccine will be listed as well.

“I do not know exactly all the vaccines that will be listed but I think the Russian vaccine might be listed also.

“So at some point there would have to be a decision made by Antigua and Barbuda which of the vaccines we will use,” Joseph explained.

The Pfizer vaccine poses logistical problems due to the requirement to store it at minus 70 degrees Celsius.

The Moderna one would be “more manageable”, the health minister said.

Work is currently underway to create a new vaccine storage facility at the former US air base in Coolidge. Costs for retrofitting and buying the requisite equipment are likely to top EC$150,000.

It is set to be completed before Christmas and will come under the responsibility of the Medical Benefits Scheme, Joseph said.

 “For the first time we will have a facility to store a high volume of vaccines when necessary, and consolidate the storage of vaccines in Antigua and Barbuda with the proper back-up system and proper security,” he added.

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