Deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines procured through COVAX, the global mechanism for equitable distribution of vaccines, are expected to pick up soon, with many Caribbean countries getting their first shipments in coming days, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Dr. Carissa Etienne disclosed on Wednesday.
Jamaica on Monday became the first Caribbean country to get the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine shipment through the COVAX facility. A total of 15 Caribbean countries will receive just over 2.1 million doses by May, according to allocation figures provided for the first round of deliveries.
“Next week, we expect that many countries in the Caribbean will start to see the first COVAX shipments arrive on their shores,” Dr. Etienne said at her weekly virtual media briefing.
In total, PAHO has placed orders for more than 3.4 million doses. Dr. Etienne said that over the next few days, PAHO’s Revolving Fund will deliver 728,000 of those COVAX-procured vaccines to five countries.
“For all these countries – even those which received small donations earlier this month – these COVAX deliveries will enable the start of steady vaccination efforts,” she said. “We are happy that vaccines through COVAX are being delivered but we recognize that the need for more vaccines and sooner is great in the Americas.”
Noting that only two vaccine manufacturers are dispatching millions of doses to dozens of countries around the world, the PAHO director said “this is a bottleneck that still prevents us from getting vaccines to every country at the same time, but shipments will become more regular as more doses are available to COVAX in the next few months”.
The upcoming shipments follow delivery of 400,000 doses of COVAX-procured vaccines to regional countries, including Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Jamaica.
“With COVID vaccination campaigns underway throughout our region, we’re at the beginning of the end of this pandemic. But while there’s reason for hope, we must also remember that doses are limited, and it will be several months before we can rely on vaccines to control this virus,” Dr. Etienne said.
She added that as vaccinations are administered, “our goal must be to save as many lives as possible by prioritizing early doses for those who are at highest risk of infection”.
“The health workers who are treating COVID patients, the elderly and those living with existing conditions must come first,” Dr. Etienne said.
At the same time, the PAHO chief said, countries must maintain public health measures – hand washing, social distancing, and mask-wearing. Even people who have been vaccinated should adhere to the measures, she added.
“Stopping this pandemic will require both that we limit new infections and that we expand access to vaccines. So, we must not let our guard down now. Let’s keep hope alive,” Dr. Etienne said.
Even as vaccines arrive, Dr. Etienne pointed out, COVID-19 is accelerating its spread in about half of the countries in the Americas.
The number of cases is rising in many South American countries, including Uruguay, Ecuador and Venezuela.
In the Caribbean, new infections are declining but many islands, including Jamaica, are reporting a rise in COVID 19-related deaths.