A leader of the global COVID vaccine procurement mission acknowledges the pandemic disaster in Latin America and the Caribbean is its “greatest priority.”
Latin America and the Caribbean have been hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19.
The region has only 8% of the world’s population, but it accounts for 28% of the world’s coronavirus deaths. And as a developing region, it’s had relatively little access to vaccines.
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That’s why COVAX is so important. Led by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the Global Vaccine Alliance, or GAVI, its goal is to make sure poor and middle-income countries get the COVID-19 vaccine doses they need.
Last week, COVAX announced its vaccine launch for Latin America and the Caribbean. Santiago Cornejo, a GAVI director and COVAX’s country engagement director, spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett from Geneva, Switzerland.
Here are some excerpts from their conversation:
WLRN: Santiago, you helped design the COVAX Facility. Explain to us what COVAX does, especially for smaller countries like Haiti or the Bahamas.
CORNEJO: We’ve created a global mechanism to have all countries be able to join. And the idea is to pool the demand, to pool the finances, and with all of these resources, to be able to negotiate with vaccine manufacturers and create a large portfolio of vaccines that then we would distribute in an equitable manner to all countries.
For small, low and lower-middle income countries, it would be very difficult without COVAX to be able to negotiate with manufacturers, because they know that the demand is much greater than the supply that would be available in the short term. But they are part of a larger pool, which brings them a greater purchasing power in our negotiations, and therefore they will benefit being part of this larger group.
You’re from Argentina. How urgently has the pandemic tragedy in Latin America and the Caribbean affected you personally as you approach COVAX’s vaccine effort in the region?
Definitely. It really hurts to see the numbers in Latin America. It is the greatest priority that we have. So almost every country in Latin America and the Caribbean islands have joined the COVAX facility. Cuba is the only country in the region that has not been able to join the facility.
It really hurts to see the numbers in Latin America. It is the greatest priority that we have.
Why has Cuba not joined COVAX? Is it because they claim to be developing their own vaccine — or because they just can’t afford it?
We hope they will be able at some point, but at this moment they haven’t been able to sign.
And Venezuela has joined, but has not made its $18 million payment to the COVAX fund yet?
We are still waiting for payments from Venezuela. In the meantime we are working [to see if they can] can use funding that’s in other countries.
NEVER IN HISTORY
COVAX just announced that in the first half of this year, starting this month, it expects to deliver 35 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and some other vaccines. And you mentioned the goal is to get at least three percent of each country’s population covered by then?
Correct. So why three percent? We want to make sure first to cover their health workers, because we want to prevent health systems from collapsing. And then we move to populations that are at risk, the elderly or those with co-morbidities.
So COVAX is also involved in prioritizing who gets these doses.
Our objective is that this will be used following the WHO [World Health Organization] normative guidance.
What then is COVAX’s is population coverage goal in Latin America and the Caribbean by the end of this year?
Our target is to reach more than 20% of their population, 280 million doses by the end of 2021.
We’ve obviously had a lot of problems with vaccine distribution in the U.S. Has COVAX learned any lessons from our experience?
Yes, definitely. We are supporting countries to prepare in order to have national vaccine plans, to clarify which are the groups that need to be prioritized — and how they will reach them. Also, we are looking at providing technical assistance and financial support for the required refrigeration equipment for the vaccines.
Right. Caribbean countries like the Dominican Republic just put out a special call for that kind of help, correct?
But recent media reports suggest COVAX is behind schedule in securing enough vaccine doses. That’s caused some panic in some Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Colombia, that haven’t started vaccination programs yet.
In my opinion, we are on track, when you look at the current agreements that we have made and the current supply that we are projecting. But, yes, the anxiety for all of these countries definitely has created a lot of pressure.
But vaccine production is extremely complex. And we are seeing, for example, in Europe some problems in production and some delays. So that’s why it’s very important that we all understand that the effort to bring millions of doses in a very short period of time — it has never been done in history.