PAHO: Access to COVID vaccines key as new variants emerge

As health authorities in Barbados remain on alert with the COVID-19 Omicron variant now detected in the region, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr Carissa Etienne says accelerating access to vaccines will be key to protecting populations, particularly the most vulnerable.

Omicron, which was first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) from South Africa on November 24, has been confirmed in the Americas, including the Caribbean island of Bermuda.

“The arrival of a new variant doesn’t necessarily mean that things will be worse, but it does mean that we must be extra vigilant,” Dr Eitenne said at a media briefing on Wednesday, urging for continued vaccination and public health measures.

Over 782,655 new COVID infections and 10,950 deaths were reported in the Americas last week, yet just 55 per cent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated. In some countries, including Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, and St Vincent and the Grenadines, coverage remains much lower.

While the region is “racing to get people protected from this virus”, the PAHO Director called for a long-term strategy that takes into account the duration of protection of the vaccines, their impact on different age groups, and the behaviour of new variants.

With 1.6 million doses of COVID vaccines arriving in the region this week and more expected to follow, it is crucial that “vulnerable groups like our indigenous peoples, the elderly and those with existing conditions that leave them at higher risk of severe COVID should be first in line,” she said.

However, in countries with high overall coverage, rates of vaccination among people over the age of 60 remain lower. And in countries where vaccination is further behind, healthy people are also being protected first.

“This lack of prioritization is perilous because it keeps our elderly vulnerable and our health systems at risk,” the top PAHO official added.

Dr Etienne also highlighted the importance of ensuring long-term, sustainable access to vaccines, emphasizing the crucial role of PAHO’s Revolving Fund – a vaccine purchasing mechanism that has already secured more than US$1 billion vaccines for the region this year.

“By using our Revolving Fund, countries are guaranteed access to quality-assured vaccines at fair prices through a transparent mechanism,” she said.

As the year draws to a close and countries deploy doses to reach the WHO’s year-end targets, the Director called for equity and preparedness.

“We need a reliable supply of doses so that our COVID vaccination campaigns do not widen the inequities that have long divided our region,” she said.

Over the past week, COVID cases have increased in the Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago continues to experience jumps in COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Other smaller islands like the Cayman Islands are also witnessing increases in COVID infections. (BT/PAHO)

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