COVAX vaccines start to arrive in Caribbean – supply concerns remain

Photo by Mat Napo

The first vaccines to be supplied to the Caribbean under the World Health Organisation (WHO) linked COVAX facility have arrived in Jamaica. However, most countries in the Caribbean are still awaiting details on when they will receive their allotment.

In a news release, the Pan American Health Organisation said that the delivery of 14,400 doses on 15 March marked the first phase of deliveries for Jamaica. The release indicates that more vaccines are expected to arrive successively through May until the island reaches 124,800, the amount specified by COVAX. Jamaica received the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine from SK Bioscience of South Korea at a dosage price of US$10.55 compared to average price of US$35.00.

Vaccine availably elsewhere in the region remains uncertain, with the COVAX facility being sharply criticised over its apparent inability to meet its commitments. In response, some countries have begun to buy vaccines at high prices or have been sharing vaccines donated by India with Jamaica accepting 50,000 doses from its Government.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said that the country had received 5,000 doses of the Indian Covishield Covid-19 vaccine ‘lent’ by Guyana but expects to receive 33,600 doses through the COVAX Facility soon. Speaking to the media, she said the vaccines would be returned to Guyana when the shipment procured through COVAX arrives “hopefully before the end of April”.

Speaking about the country’s decision to also buy vaccines elsewhere, she said that Government was in several negotiations in view of the “Wild West” that existed in relation to equitable distribution. Government was, she said, prepared to purchase the numbers of doses required outside of the COVAX agreement, even though the price would be higher, and was in negotiation with the African Medical Supplies Platform and with two commercial suppliers.

In Guyana, President Irfaan Ali has expressed concern that there had been no word from the COVAX facility for a month on the 108,000 doses of COVID vaccines that Guyana was to have received by the end of March. Observing that Guyana had acquired 20,000 Sinopharm vaccines from China, and 80,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines from India, he said that Government was now engaged in direct discussions with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the African Union, was expecting supplies shortly via the UAE of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, and was in touch with Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca. However, in the latter cases, he said, Guyana had been told supplies will not be available until 2022.

Chinese media reports indicate that the availability of the Sinopharm vaccine follows a recent telephone conversation between Presidents Xi and Ali during which Xi reportedly said : “China stands ready to strengthen cooperation with Guyana on COVID-19 vaccines and continue to provide assistance and support within its capacity for Guyana‘s economic and social development”.

In contrast almost all other countries in the region including Trinidad – which is now also expected to receive vaccine support from China – have yet to receive any significant supplies other than as gifts from India, with Governments becoming increasingly defensive in response to growing local criticism of the approach they have taken. Although it is hard to compare vaccination statistics, the country that is most advanced in immunising its population is the Dominican Republic with 0.7m people having been vaccinated by 14 March, largely through the early pre-purchase in 2020 of what then were candidate vaccines.

In common with other parts of the world, concern has been expressed in some Caribbean countries about possible harmful side effects of the vaccine they are to receive through the COVAX facility.

Responding, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) has said that it is aware that some countries in the EU had suspended their AstraZeneca vaccination campaign because of “rare blood coagulation disorders in people who had received the vaccine”, but noted that “the vaccine being used in the Caribbean is not the same version or batch as the one in Europe”.

In a separate development, Public Health England (PHE) said that a new Coronavirus variant had been identified in the UK in two people who had recently been in Antigua, adding that it shared some traits of other variants but would not as yet be categorised as concerning.

CARPHA said that the appearance of variants is part of the normal cycle of viral infection and replication and urged Caribbean citizens to continue to continue taking all of the measures necessary to stop the spread of virus. It added that it continued to work with its regional and international partners towards a harmonised regional response to control the pandemic by slowing down the transmission of disease and reducing associated mortality.

PAHO’s Revolving Fund is responsible for the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines for the Americas under the COVAX Facility. The 15 Caribbean countries that will eventually receive just over 2.1m doses of COVAX vaccines by May include Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis St Lucia, St Vincent, Suriname, and Trinidad. Of these Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, St Lucia, and St Vincent) will receive their vaccines free of charge. COVAX seeks to provide vaccines for at least 20% of the population of each participating country during 2021.

In the first round of vaccine allocation, all COVAX participating countries will receive doses to vaccinate between 2.2 and 2.6% of their population. The release said that the only exceptions are Small Island Developing States, which will receive an allocation of vaccines to cover between 16 and 20% of their population, due to the high logistical cost of delivering small quantities of vaccines.

This is a lead article from Caribbean Insight, The Caribbean Council’s flagship fortnightly publication. From The Bahamas to French Guiana, each edition consists of country-by-country analysis of the leading news stories of consequence, distilling business and political developments across the Caribbean into a single must-read publication. Please follow the links on the right-hand side of this page to subscribe, or access a free trial.