By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
A PAN American Health Organisation official said countries in the region should start preparing for the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine and focusing on the prioritisation process ahead of its arrival, as full vaccinations of their citizens “will not happen overnight”.
Speaking during PAHO’s first briefing for the year, PAHO Director Dr Carissa F Etienne urged countries to get ready and plan properly until a vaccine becomes available for their citizens, while noting she believes the next two years will be “critical” in helping to achieve population immunity.
The agency expects to begin distributing vaccines to the region by the end of March. She said: “We need to plan very well, we need to use this interim period to make sure that every country is ready and we need to begin the prioritisation process because we won’t have all the vaccines that we need immediately.”
Her comments come as several countries continue to face challenges with the roll-out of the vaccines, with some being criticised for the slow pace of the vaccination rates.
However, Dr Etienne warned nations to not have unrealistic expectations once a vaccine becomes available in a country, as the process will not be an easy and quick one due to availability restraints among other things.
As a result of these challenges, she also advised countries not to rely on vaccinations “to flatten the pandemic curve.” This focus, she added, should instead be redirected to the most vulnerable and at-risk groups.
She said: “Let’s just reiterate that already a few countries in our region have started vaccinations albeit with limited doses and having to prioritise the more vulnerable population, including health care workers.
“Now, we need to understand that the availability of the vaccine in the early days will be limited given manufacturing and distribution timelines and, of course, because some high income countries have already bought millions and millions of doses.
“So, I think that the next two years are going to be critical as vaccination of a majority of the population will not happen overnight and I think we have to manage those expectations. If there are not enough vaccines to stop the transmission, then our initial strategy must be to use those vaccines to save lives by prioritising those at higher risk.”
During a Ministry of Health press conference last week, health officials revealed that a COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be available in The Bahamas in the first quarter of this year.
Yesterday, Dr Etienne said officials are still hoping to distribute the vaccines by the end of March.
“COVAX is going to offer vaccine access to a basket of some 15 vaccines and we believe that distribution will begin by the end of March and it will target at least 20 percent of the population with a focus on the vulnerable groups,” she said.
“The situation should also improve once more vaccines are approved by national regulatory authorities and this include vaccines that have already completed…clinical trials.
“Today, we have more than a pipeline of more than 190 vaccine candidates and we’re not sure that all of them are going to be approved, but it is encouraging to see that so many vaccines are in development and so we’re working as quickly as possible.”
It is not clear which vaccine the government will choose for The Bahamas, with Health Minister Renward Wells recently telling reporters officials are keeping their options open as discussions with several vaccine distributors are continuing.
This week it was revealed that health consultant Dr Merceline Dahl-Regis will chair a consultative committee to advise the Ministry of Health on a vaccination plan. Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced on Tuesday the committee “will report at the appropriate time on the rollout of a vaccine in The Bahamas”.
Until such time, Bahamians are expected to continue following all the health protocols to minimise potential COVID spread.
“Our collective ability to keep up with these measures has the power to determine the trajectory of this year,” Dr Etienne stressed yesterday. “If we remain diligent, we have the power to control this virus; if we relax, make no mistake: 2021 will be far worse than 2020.”
Last week alone, the Region of the Americas reported 2.5 million new infections – the highest weekly cases since the virus first reached the region.
This comes against the backdrop of new, more infectious COVID-19 variants which continue to spread in parts of the world.
Dr Etienne said while there is no data to suggest that the strains are more deadly, they still have the capacity to further strain healthcare systems.
“At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that these variants affect patients differently, but early data does suggest that the virus can spread more easily, accelerating the threat to our health systems, at a time in which they are already close to capacity,” she noted.
“That’s why the public health measures we’ve been urging from the start – such as practising social distancing, wearing masks in public and washing hands often – remain our very best bet to help control this virus right now, in all its forms.”
As of Tuesday, COVID-19 cases in the country stood at 8,011 after seven additional cases were reported. One hundred and seventy-five people have died locally from the disease.