The director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Carissa F Etienne, on Wednesday warned that while the Americas, including the Caribbean, urgently awaits a breakthrough, the regional health organization will only support the distribution of a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine that has proven to be “safe and effective” in clinical trials reviewed by National Regulatory Authorities and recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“It is important to emphasize that while we’re working to develop a vaccine faster than ever before, the process to guarantee its safety and efficacy is unchanged,” Etienne told a press briefing.
She noted that there is a pipeline of more than 180 vaccine candidates under study, with 11 in phase III clinical trials.
What has changed “is the unprecedented attention on the vaccine development process,” Dr. Etienne, highlighting the “over-abundance of information from a number of sources, some less reliable than others and not based on science, which has led to confusion and misinformation around vaccine safety.”
The PAHO director emphasized that vaccines are designed and manufactured with safety in mind.
She said that once a COVID-19 vaccine proves safe and effective in a clinical trial, regulatory agencies thoroughly evaluate the data prior to granting approvals, and WHO will also oversee an independent review process before granting its own recommendation.
“How we communicate about COVID-19 will make our ability to control the pandemic,” Dr. Etienne said, calling for regional countries, the media, regulatory authorities, the private sector and the scientific community to come together to provide the public with “clear, concise and science-based information about a future COVID-19 vaccine.”
She said an important factor to establish trust in the new vaccines is to ensure their accessibility to all countries, adding that PAHO is supporting countries to gain access to these vaccines through the COVAX facility.
“Virtually every country in Latin America and the Caribbean has joined or is in the process of joining the facility,” said Etienne said, stating that countries are taking the necessary legal and budgetary steps to participate in this innovative global partnership.
“We are actively collaborating with financial institutions, like the Inter-American Development Bank, to support countries in our region access the funding needed to purchase vaccines through the COVAX Facility when they are available, she added.
“PAHO’s Revolving Fund, with more than 40 years of experience providing affordable and quality vaccines to countries in Latin American and the Caribbean, will be, along with UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund), the purchase mechanism for the COVAX facility,” Dr. Etienne continued.
In the Caribbean, she said 11 countries will receive financial support for initial payments to join the COVAX facility, in collaboration with the Caribbean Public Health Agency and the European Union.
The PAHO director said there have been over 40 million cases and over 1.1 million deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, including 18.9 million cases in the Region of the Americas and over 610,000 deaths as of October 20.
“Across our region, around 100,000 people continue to test positive for COVID-19 every day,” Etienne lamented.
She pointed to trends that show cases rising in the United States and Canada, and plateauing across Central America, while most new cases in the Caribbean are related to non-essential international travel.
Dr. Etienne said these spikes show that, while the region is “hard at work preparing for a vaccine, we must also keep a strong and steady course to continue fighting the virus without one.”
She urged all countries to “prioritize a transparent and proactive communications approach for COVID-19.
“The people of our region crave clear guidance,” Dr. Etienne said. “Communicating effectively and consistently about what they can do to protect themselves and avoid infection remains vital.
“Testing, treating and isolating cases, as well as tracing contacts are all part of a good surveillance strategy; and, too few countries are doing this well in our region,” she added. “It is as important now as it was in April. “And it will be even more important once we have a vaccine.”