NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Dr Carissa F. Etienne yesterday urged countries in the Americas to prepare for vaccinations against the coronavirus.
During PAHO’s weekly press briefing, Etienne noted the region has reported more than 15.5 million cases and some 530,000 deaths due to COVID-19 thus far.
She pointed to the search for a COVID-19 vaccine as the world continues to grapple with the virus, noting that while nearly 200 vaccine candidates are being studied to date, there is no guarantee that they will prove effective.
“The truth is, countries cannot wait to have all of the answers before they start planning and preparing to deliver a COVID vaccine,” she said.
“Preparations for vaccination against COVID-19 will not be easy, but our region has a strong legacy of immunization programs that give us a leg up as we plan for the future.”
Etienne explained that the COVAX Facility, convened by Gavi, CEPI and WHO, will afford countries in the region the best opportunity to fast-track access to COVID-19 vaccines.
The COVAX Facility offers access to a basket of 15 possible vaccines.
She noted that participating countries will be guaranteed initial doses to cover at least three percent of their population in the first phases of deployment, as supplies catch up with global demand.
Those doses will eventually reach 20 percent of the country’s population – enough to protect those at higher risk for severe COVID-19.
Etienne noted that 156 countries have sent their letter of intent to join the COVAX initiative and more are expected to follow.
She advised that more than 64 self-financing countries and territories from around the world have already committed to the COVAX Facility.
Fourteen of those countries are from the Americas, including Argentina, Belize, The Bahamas, Bermuda, The Cayman Islands, Chile, Colombia, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, St Kitts and Nevis, Turks and Caicos and Venezuela.
Those members will be joined by 92 countries that are eligible for support through the Gavi COVAX AMC, which is a financing instrument to support the procurement of vaccines for low and middle-income economies.
Ten of those are PAHO countries, which include Bolivia, Dominica, El Salvador, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Additionally, Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic. Ecuador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Montserrat, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay, have submitted confirmation of their intent to participate.
Etienne said many more countries from the region have also expressed an interest in joining and have asked for an extension from GARVI on their letter of intent.
“We are expecting this number will increase in the upcoming days and weeks,” she said.
The PAHO director noted that once a vaccine proves safe and effective in trials, countries will have to work together to quickly validate these findings.
“National regulatory authorities, working alongside WHO, will have to swiftly assess and approve a vaccine candidate without compromising quality or cutting corners. This is important,” she said.
“These decisions must be made transparently, based on the data and science to earn the public’s trust.”
Etienne said PAHO will be supporting countries to monitor the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness over time and to assess whether vaccination plans need to be adjusted.
She said country immunization programs will have to be adjusted so they meet the demands of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Just as essential services are being offered outside of traditional settings, vaccination strategies must be designed to minimize the strain on our clinics and hospitals, without sacrificing convenience and access,” she continued.
“To ensure vaccination sites aren’t overwhelmed, they must have adequate staff, resources, and equipment in place. Scheduling will also be important to control foot traffic and maintain social distancing.”
The PAHO director added that the success of vaccination also rests on how information is shared.
“Governments must provide a clear guidance about the vaccine and their vaccination strategies to instill trust and to minimize confusion. Misinformation during vaccination activities costs lives.”