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by Gemma Handy

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Rollout of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is to be delayed while government waits for the World Health Organization (WHO) to give the jab the official stamp of approval.

The delay is a U-turn on previous plans to get the shot in circulation quickly to bolster the national vaccination programme by offering residents an alternative to AstraZeneca.

Information Minister Melford Nicholas told media yesterday that government was keen to avoid public concern that it had been “reckless” in dishing out the shot.

Another reason for the postponement might be that there are still as many as 28,500 unused AstraZeneca doses in the country – some of them due to expire at the end of June – amid lingering hesitancy among many residents towards getting inoculated.

There have also been doubts cast on Sputnik V’s safety from some countries in recent weeks, including Brazil whose health authority is worried the jab may contain active adenovirus particles, responsible for the common cold, which could make recipients sick.

Minister Nicholas said despite Sputnik V showing good results, there remained a “degree of hesitancy”.

“While the Pharmacy Council has already given emergency use authorisation, there is still some caution,” he said.

Nicholas said government would “proceed full steam ahead” once the WHO had given the vaccine the green light.

He explained that waiting for the “mark of consent” from the international body “eliminates any possibility that the government is capricious or reckless in any approaches it has towards making vaccines available”.

The WHO is currently reviewing the Russian jab and carrying out inspections for good manufacturing practices.

President of the Pharmacy Council Michael Joseph told Observer yesterday it “may be another few weeks or months” before Sputnik V is included in the WHO’s approved list of vaccines.

The Council told health chiefs a month ago it was prepared to recommend the jab for use in Antigua and Barbuda, and has since given the official go-ahead.

“We have no concerns about it. As we indicated to the Prime Minister and others when we looked at the data from the 57 countries that had used it then, there had not been any indication of any issues pertaining to its safety and efficacy,” Joseph said.

A handful of deaths in Russia after taking Sputnik V sparked alarm early last month.

“The reality is that people are going to die; the important point is to identify if causation was linked to the vaccine – and this has not been the case,” the Pharmacy Council boss continued.

“Where deaths have occurred after the vaccine, they have been cleared as having a direct link.”

Sputnik V has now been authorised for use in 71 countries across the globe. It is said to offer 92 percent protection against Covid-19.

Unlike other vaccines, each of its two doses – which are given 21 days apart – uses a different type of adenovirus.

There are currently 1,000 first doses being stored on island. They have an expiry date of September, Joseph said. Government has indicated its intention to order more to help the country reach herd immunity.

The twin island nation has to date received 40,000 AstraZeneca doses from India, 5,000 from Dominica and 24,000 via the global COVAX scheme. It has in turn gifted 5,000 to Grenada.

So far, 32,000 people in Antigua and Barbuda have received a first jab and 3,452 have been given a second shot. That leaves more than 28,000 AstraZeneca doses unused.

Meanwhile, the country is said to still be on track to receive 16,000 more AstraZeneca doses via COVAX at the end of the month.

This is despite the fact that India – the largest single supplier to the scheme – announced a further suspension to its vaccine exports earlier this week as it grapples with its own coronavirus crisis.

Minister Nicholas said yesterday he believed the next shipment was “imminent”.

“We are not aware that the decision made by the Indian government would have affected the regime that is already in place with COVAX. To the best of my knowledge, the remaining COVAX vaccinations are to arrive at the end of the month,” he added.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas also confirmed to Observer last night she had received no information to the contrary.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Gaston Browne once again appealed to the public to get vaccinated against the virus, calling it a “moral and economic imperative”. He warned that a third, deadlier wave could hit the nation if it fails to inoculate around 70 percent of the population by summer.