The recent news of promising preliminary results from two COVID-19 vaccine candidates has placed a light at the end of the tunnel and led the Ministry of Health to begin preparations for the delivery of one of them.
Over the past two weeks, news has broken that early reports indicate the vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna could offer close to 95 per cent protection from the virus. But according to Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh, Moderna’s candidate is more feasible for T&T.
“The advantage of the Moderna vaccine, which we look forward to, is that the Moderna vaccine can be stored at much higher temperatures than the Pfizer vaccine,” Deyalsingh said during a virtual press conference yesterday.
The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at between -70 to -80 degrees Celcius, a logistical challenge for many countries. However, the Moderna vaccine can be stored at around -20 degrees Celcius for up to six months.
“Logistically, that (Moderna option) is a huge improvement which would make it easier to store and distribute the vaccines,” Deyalsingh said.
The Moderna vaccine can also be thawed and kept between two to eight degrees Celcius for 30 days and is stable at room temperature for 12 hours. According to Deyalsingh, this is similar to the conditions for most vaccines used in the country.
“That is good news again. It means that our current distribution from a central repository does not have to change significantly,” he said.
He said the ministry has already chosen three sites to store the vaccine—two in Trinidad and one in Tobago. “The main hub will be at the Couva Hospital. That is the current thinking. There was a site visit there yesterday (Tuesday). That would be our main storage and main distribution hub,” he said.
The other storage facilities would be the C40 Central Stores in Chaguaramas and one in Tobago, which, he said, would be a “redundancy in case something happens at Couva.”But to store the vaccines at the required temperature, Deyalsingh said walk-in chillers will have to be built at the Couva Hospital and the facility in Tobago.
“In that walk-in chiller, we would be ordering now the ultra cold-chain freezers to store the vaccines. These are like your individual refrigerators. So just think about a big room with refrigerators stacked up inside of it,” he said.
Deyalsingh said later this week a final decision will be made on whether five, eight or 10 freezers will be ordered, “because we have to talk to PAHO to find out in what possible volumes and quantities we’d be getting the vaccines.”He said two additional rooms will need to be constructed—a prep room for workers to don their warm clothing and a step-down room for the vaccines to thaw.
He said the ministry had convened a multi-pronged team to explore all logistical aspects of the vaccine, from storage to distribution, some two months ago and was also close to figuring out how to distribute it.
Deyalsingh was unable to give a figure on how much the upgrades to facilitate storage and distribution of the vaccine will cost taxpayers.
“We are now working out those estimates…because we only now know the temperatures that we have to work with. So site visits were done yesterday (Tuesday) to Couva, we have worked out dimensions, now we have to go out to get quotes and so on,” he said.
He also assured there was enough funding within the ministry’s budget allocation to allow for the upgrades.
The minister’s optimism in the Moderna vaccines is also attributed to it being tied to the COVAX facility. T&T has bought into the facility and under the terms of it, will be able to receive enough vaccine doses to cover 20 per cent of the population in the first instance. These 280,000 doses will go initially to frontline workers such as doctors, the elderly and the immunocompromised, he said.During his contribution to the Budget debate in Parliament over a month ago, Deyalsingh had said the Government had allocated US$9,741,237 (TT$66,142,999.23) for the purchase of vaccines.