Deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines are picking up speed across the Americas as more countries prepare for the imminent arrival of doses procured through COVAX, the global mechanism for equitable distribution of vaccines, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne reported today.
During her weekly media briefing, Dr. Etienne said that over the next few days, PAHO’s Revolving Fund will deliver 728,000 COVAX-procured COVID-19 vaccines to five regional countries. In total, PAHO has placed orders for more than 3.4 million doses, she said.
“For all these countries – even those which received small donations earlier this month – these COVAX deliveries will enable the start of steady vaccination efforts,” Dr. Etienne said. “We are happy that vaccines through COVAX are being delivered but we recognize that the need for more vaccines and sooner is great in the Americas.”
She said only two vaccine manufacturers are dispatching millions of doses to dozens of countries around the world. “This is a bottleneck that still prevents us from getting vaccines to every country at the same time,” she said. “But shipments will become more regular as more doses are available to COVAX in the next few months.”
The upcoming shipments to five nations follow delivery of 400,000 doses of COVAX-procured vaccines to regional countries, including Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Jamaica. Colombia received COVAX-procured doses through a pilot program earlier this month.
COVAX is a global effort between the Coalition for the Promotion of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Gavi Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), and the World Health Organization (WHO), working in partnership with UNICEF as key implementing partner. In the Americas, the PAHO Revolving Fund is the recognized procurement agent for the COVAX facility. Thirty-six countries in the Americas are participating in COVAX.
“With COVID vaccination campaigns underway throughout our region, we’re at the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” Dr. Etienne said. “But while there’s reason for hope, we must also remember that doses are limited, and it will be several months before we can rely on vaccines to control this virus.”
She said that as vaccinations are administered, “our goal must be to save as many lives as possible by prioritizing early doses for those who are at highest risk of infection. The health workers who are treating COVID patients, the elderly and those living with existing conditions must come first.” In total, nearly 1.3 million people were infected with COVID-19 in the Americas in the past week, and almost 31,000 died because of the virus.
Caribbean nations are also looking forward to arrivals of vaccines. Fifteen Caribbean countries will receive just over 2.1 million doses of COVAX-procured vaccines by May, according to allocation figures provided for the first round of deliveries. “Next week, we expect that many countries in the Caribbean will start to see the first COVAX shipments arrive on their shores,” Dr. Etienne said.
A fourth vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, has been authorized by WHO, which issued an Emergency Use License (EUL) last week. COVAX has secured over 100 million doses of the vaccine for 2021 and up to 500 million through 2022, with doses expected to start arriving in July. The vaccine, which provides protection with a single dose, promises to accelerate vaccination efforts.
So far, 28 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered to Latin American and Caribbean populations while nearly 138 million doses have been provided throughout the Americas.
Dr. Etienne cautioned that countries must maintain public health measures – hand washing, social distancing, and mask wearing. Even people who have been vaccinated should adhere to the measures. “Stopping this pandemic will require both that we limit new infections and that we expand access to vaccines,” she said. “So, we must not let our guard down now. Let’s keep hope alive.”
Even as vaccines arrive, Dr. Etienne pointed out, COVID-19 is accelerating its spread in about half of the countries in the Americas.
The number of cases is rising in many South American countries, including Uruguay, Ecuador and Venezuela. “In the last week, Paraguay’s health system issued an urgent warning as hospitals have filled with COVID patients,” Dr. Etienne said. “Major cities like Lima and Rio de Janeiro have imposed curfews and lockdowns to control recent spikes.”
In Brazil, several areas are experiencing record-high infections and hospital beds are nearing capacity in more than half of states. The country is reporting the second highest COVID daily death toll in the world.
New infections are declining in the U.S. and Mexico while cases are increasing in Canada, particularly among young adults. In the Caribbean, new infections are declining but many islands are reporting a rise in COVID 19-related deaths.