Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley described the marketplace for vaccines as ‘topsy turvy’ during his statement at the Ministry of Health’s virtual media conference on Monday.
The prime minister said that for smaller countries like Trinidad and Tobago, accessing the vaccine directly from manufacturers was a challenge.
“If you were a small purchaser, you were not even listened to or entertained by the suppliers who were out there under the control of the bigger more powerful countries,” he said. “So outside of Covax, there was virtually no supply available to small countries like us.”
Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh agreed, adding: “Some companies will not talk to you unless you can buy 3m doses; there’s no way Trinidad and Tobago even needs 3m doses, can store 3m doses or can pay for 3m doses.”
But even within the Covax facility, an initiative led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure equitable distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine to countries worldwide, Dr Rowley suggested that supply was a problem.
He said that by January a path to accessing the vaccine was not clear or was non-existent. As a result, Caricom had issued a statement voicing their concerns that the Covax facility was not working as they had expected.
“What we as a people and as countries of the world had thought was a plan that was in place to allow the vaccine distribution once vaccines became authorised for use, that those plans were failing. And that the programme that we had put in place—the Covax, where countries like ours were placing our faith under WHO—that there was trouble ahead.”
Dr Rowley said he hoped that suppliers who had committed to supply vaccines to Covax would meet the March deadline for T&T to receive the first shipment of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines.
He said T&T would receive its first shipment of doses ‘providing the Covax entities receive vaccines from the major suppliers’.
There is still no date for the arrival of that first shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines, expected to be between 100,000 and 120,000 doses.
During his presentation, the chief medical officer, Dr Roshan Parasram, described the process for approving and distributing vaccines through the WHO. He said that after all approvals, the country would receive pre-alerts, estimated arrival times and shipping documents.
Next, he said, the vaccines would be manufactured then dispatched from plants to receiving countries, consigned to a broker and stored.
But the health minister said T&T’s vaccines were already on shelves.
“As of now we don’t have an airway bill number, we don’t have a consignment number… Between tomorrow and the next couple of days, we will get more information as they roll out the delivery of vaccines to countries under the Covax facility,” Deyalsingh said. “But vaccines have already been manufactured.”
Dr Rowley said that the country was continuing to try to source vaccines outside of the Covax facility through bi-lateral agreements and through the African Medical council. However, he suggested supply remained an issue as larger countries have grabbed the lion’s share of the vaccine supply.
“The world is behaving as it always has,” he said, “Who have corn feed their fowls. And who have more corn feed more fowls.”
In a virtual media conference on 17 February, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “… progress on vaccinations has been wildly uneven and unfair. Just 10 countries have administered 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, more than 130 countries have not received a single dose.”
But Rowley warned that even while searching for vaccines, the government was being careful ‘not to fall into the hands of charlatans’ and ‘… find that you are taken, where you pay money for an order and can’t receive the product, or worse, you get a vaccine that is not authorised and that creates serious legal and other difficulties for misuse of a medical product.’
He said the government was being approached by people purporting to be agents of pharmaceutical companies, who were trying to overcharge for vaccines. According to the prime minister, these agents quoted prices of $19 and $25 per dose, while vaccines through the Covax facility cost $4.95.
Meanwhile, the CMO said that the country was continuing to prepare for its vaccine rollout and 20 facilities would be inspected to determine their suitability as vaccination sites.
When asked how patients who did not receive care through public facilities would access the vaccine, the CMO said: “With regards to your patients outside of the public sector, persons can walk to one of those 20 centres in your area to have your vaccinations done.
“So we will be accepting some degree of walk-ins as well as generating parallel sites, eventually, so you can have other sites other than the health centre sites to walk in to.
“But we will communicate with the national population once we confirm the sites, the days of the week people can walk in, the days of the week we have, for example, NCD [non-communicable disease] clients attending, and let persons know how they can actually come into the facilities to get their vaccines.”
In today’s Covid-19 update, the health ministry reported two new positive cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases since March 2020 to 7,682. The death toll is now 139.