OECS Heads of Government, including PM Gaston Browne, met this morning in the Sixth Special Meeting of the OECS Authority devoted entirely to the COVID-19 pandemic, and had a fulsome interaction with special invitee the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus.
OECS chairman PM Roosevelt Skerrit commended Dr. Tedros on his exemplary leadership of the WHO during a period of international crisis, and he focused the discussion on the most urgent challenges facing OECS member states at this time. The WHO Director-General acknowledged that the OECS region had seen some success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic, but emphasized that the critical issue now was collaboration among countries to manage the risks associated with international travel.
Dr. Tedros explained that he had called on vaccine-producing countries to adopt ‘vaccine equity’, not as charity but as a means to allow all countries to overcome the pandemic.
The meeting heard that only one country in the region had received any vaccines from the COVAX facility: Jamaica. Heads discussed the urgency of having vaccine production and distribution ramped up as quickly as possible.
Dr. Tedros agreed to pay full attention to small states’ issues and to make the supply of vaccines a top priority for the WHO. He revealed that 76% of global vaccine production had so far gone to only a few rich countries.
Several Heads of Government pointed out that the bottlenecks in international vaccine supply had the effect of prolonging the recovery process in their COVID-hit countries; and that the promise of 600 million COVAX doses by June 2021 seemed unrealistic. It was pointed out that even if all the vaccine doses under COVAX were delivered, there would still be a ‘vaccine gap’ that would have to be filled.
Statistics available to the meeting revealed that Antigua and Barbuda had so far inoculated the second-highest percentage of its population in the CARICOM region, at 25%. Only Anguilla had inoculated a higher percentage (31%).
PM Browne urged that vaccine accessibility should be based, not on purchasing power or strictly commercial considerations, but rather on vulnerability. He also questioned why the WHO seemed to be taking so long to give approval to the Russian and Chinese vaccines, Sputnik V and Sinopharm, pointing out that the delayed approval was also related to the issue of ‘vaccine hesitancy’ among OECS populations.
For his part, Dr. Tedros undertook to raise the issue of accessibility and vulnerability on 23rd March when there will be a summit of the world’s major vaccine producers; and to contact President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa regarding the possible availability of excess vaccines for OECS member states, as well as President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya in his capacity as chair of the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of countries.
‘The race to herd immunity is on’ said PM Browne, ‘and we look to Dr. Tedros and the WHO to assist in urgently increasing our accessibility to vaccines on reasonable terms and therefore widening our vaccine options.’
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