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Dr Erica Wheeler

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As the Ministry of Health prepares to accept its quota of COVID-19 vaccines, many are concerned about safety as it took biotechnology companies less than a year to research, develop and test their products.

However, the World Health Organisation representative for T&T, Dr Erica Wheeler said developers achieved this because of the global effort by 187 countries that signed on the COVAX Facility.

T&T joined the COVAX Facility, which is a global initiative that brings governments and manufacturers together to ensure eventual COVID-19 vaccines reach those in greatest need.

During the Ministry of Health virtual COVID-19 media conference yesterday, Wheeler said it means researchers had funding upfront, which was not the case in the past. Vaccines usually take an average of 10 to 15 years in development. The fastest was the Mumps vaccines, which took four years.

“There are now 187 countries in the world that have joined this facility which means that each of these countries, they have put down funding in order to accelerate the speed at which vaccines have been produced. It is why in such a short period of time, the world has been able to see even now, three vaccines that are going throughout a stage of emergency use in the world today.

“It is thanks to the COVAX Facility and the fact that it was funded upfront that the vaccine manufacturers could very speedily produce vaccines. They did not have to wait as in the past to do the research, produce the vaccine and then compete with others to get it onto the market. It is the first time this has ever been done,” Wheeler said.

T&T paid down for its share of COVAX, therefore, it has access to the vaccines globally. Wheeler said each country would get 20 per cent of the two billion doses expected to be produced by each manufacturer by the end of 2021. The allocation is proportional to the total population of a country, and as time goes on, other categories of people will receive the vaccines. Wheeler said T&T would receive an initial supply of 280,000 vaccines and the Ministry of Health has identified the priority groups.

While the long term effects of the vaccine, if any, is unknown, Wheeler said this was the case when scientists developed the formula for the measle and tetanus. Like COVAX, those vaccines went through three stages of testing.

“We would not have known what would be the long term effect. Every year, the flu vaccine is different. They study the virus because it changes, and an adjustment is made. We, at the beginning, and as time goes along, nothing is fixed in stone. The most important thing is the fact that they prevented the disease and are safe, the quality is good and suitable. WHO is not changing its standards just for COVID-19.”

Grace Sookchand, Manager of Expanded Programme on Immunization at the Ministry of Health, said they anticipate that most COVID-19 vaccines would require at least two doses for immunogenicity. Sookchand said the COVID-19 vaccines are likely to have varying characteristic and presentation.

The Ministry of Health already established a National Coordinating Committee to plan, coordinated, implement activities, review global level information related to COVID-19 vaccines and incorporate it into the planning and preparation for immunization programmes.

Dr Avery Hinds, technical director in the Epidemiology Division at the Ministry of Health said the seven day rolling average for COVID-19 was 28 cases. He said the Ministry was hopeful that the daily caseload would decrease.

To achieve this, he said the population must continue to follow the public health guidelines, which includes avoiding the traditional holiday gatherings during the Christmas season.