Caricom’s call for a global summit to discuss equitable access and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is timely and urgent. The best prospect for the eventual end of the pandemic is widespread availability of a safe and highly effective vaccine that provides long-term immunity. That requires a level of global co-operation that is not yet apparent.
There is a real risk, given the transmissibility of COVID-19 and the emergence of more infectious variants in recent weeks, that the pandemic could drag on for years before it is finally brought under control.
For Caricom member states and other developing countries around the world, there is concern about being unable to compete for equitable access to vaccines. As the regional grouping pointed out in a statement yesterday, all countries are vulnerable and should work together.
However, some countries already have priority access to vaccines through Advance Purchase Agreements (APAs) with manufacturers—legally binding contracts that allow some governments to secure a specific number of vaccine doses at a negotiated price.
For T&T and other countries in the region, the earliest that the vaccines may become available for frontline workers and vulnerable members of our populations is the first quarter of this year—and that is a very optimistic projection.
We are yet to get any firm word from our public health professionals on the arrival of vaccines, even as wealthier countries have obtained stockpiles of available vaccines and distribution has been underway since the end of 2020, albeit with varying levels of success.
Concerns have been increasing about possible inequities in the system because the United States, which accounts for a fifth of all COVID-19 cases globally, has reserved 800 million doses, while Japan, Australia and Canada collectively reserved more than one billion doses but do not account for even one per cent of cases globally.
On the other hand, T&T and the rest of Caricom, which have all signed on to the WHO’s COVAX system, are way down in the vaccine queue. COVAX seeks to guarantee that all countries are offered the doses they need to vaccinate 20 per cent of their population before other countries can increase coverage but the arrangement is yet to be tested.
So far, all that is known is that the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) has secured downpayments for more than one million doses of the vaccines for Caribbean member states. Still, COVAX, which is aiming to produce more than two billion doses of vaccine by the end of this year, is the best chance for most people in the world to get protection from COVID-19 through immunization.
Wealthy governments have already locked in supplies from the Pfizer BioNTech partnership and Moderna but some public health experts are warning that without full global cooperation, low and middle-income countries may not get vaccines until 2022.
For a region already in the throes of pandemic fatigue, that means too many more painful months with the threat of COVID-19 to economies and regional health systems.
Equitable access to tests, treatments and vaccines is the best way to end the pandemic sooner rather than later. That is why Caricom’s call should be heeded.