Caricom leaders have said they “dissatisfied and deeply concerned” about the inequitable access to vaccines for small developing states.
“As the virus does not discriminate, access to vaccines should not be discriminatory, with a few countries dominating the market with their resources and their volumes. Heads of Government noted that to date, even countries with the funds to purchase, have been unable to procure and receive vaccines through commercial arrangements, given the relatively small volumes which they seek,” Caricom said in a communique issued at the end of the two-day inter-sessional meeting.
It said that Caricom will write to the governments of some traditional partners on the matter and has called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to convene a Global Summit to address urgently equitable access.
Several Caribbean islands are now in varying stages of discussions with the Government of India to secure donations of the scarce COVID-19 vaccine. The donations are, so far, the only vaccine Caribbean islands have been able to access.
There is no date yet on when T&T or other islands would receive the vaccines from the Covax facility.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, in his capacity as Caricom chairman, said that Caricom is reaching out to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations for assistance.
He acknowledged that there was a global shortage, but said that provisions had been put in place to allow smaller countries to access the vaccine.
“It has not been working along those lines and the end result is that at this time, we have only had one gift of 170,000 vaccines within our region and up to now we have not been able to access any other,” he said.
“We now know and anticipate with great expectation that in the next few days when we would hear when we will get our first Covax,” he said.
“We must understand that the initial Covax tranche or quotas are but a small part of our needs and in attempting to find and access ways to either receive donations or through purchase from manufacturers, the only thing we’ve got was some commitment to some territories from India to add some more to the 170,000 doses,” he said.
On February 10, the Caricom Secretariat thanked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the gift of 500,000 vaccines to Caricom. Barbados thanked India for some 100,000 and Dominica thanked India for its 70,000.
Eights days after that tweet though, Rowley told Guardian Media that he was not aware of any 500,000 gift of vaccines from India.
When asked about the donation, Rowley said each island made individual applications to India for the vaccine.
“There has really not been a document or an offer to any one country like that,” Rowley said.
“What has happened was that different people were spoken to by different Ambassadors and there was a bit of a difference as to what the commitment was and in fact, some commitments were actually met,” he said.
“There was no singular offer of 500,000 vaccines but they were gifts to two countries- Dominica and Barbados,” he said.
“Today, we were told by other heads that the contact with India, other offers have been made at different levels of confirmation. So in short the contact with India has allowed some vaccines to come into the region as we have mentioned earlier and there are promises of some more and the possibility of purchase of vaccines if those suppliers who are making those vaccines for larger countries accept our orders and agree to sell,” Rowley said.
“The Government of India has made some vaccines available, we anticipate some more,” he said.
Rowley said that there as never an order of 500,000 that Caricom was “tapping into”.
Rowley defended the Indian-based vaccines against criticism that it was an “Indian concoction” as opposed to an approved vaccine.
Rowley said that the European-based AstraZeneca was using the Indian-based manufacturers to produce its vaccine.
The vaccine is being produced in India by the Serum Institute which received WHO approval on February 15.
Larger countries with deeper pockets have jumped the Covid-19 production line, paying manufacturers to supply to them directly.
Suppliers are now forcing smaller countries to pay covertly and in confidence in order to get the vaccine.
“Countries with deep pockets and great influence have contracted the early production of this vaccine and other ones so that the vaccine that was made in India was contracted,” he said.
“What we have been experiencing as small countries with small pockets, when we make contact with those companies, like the one doing it in India. You are being told as we are being told that we are unable to take an order from you,” he said.
Rowley said that other manufacturers have gotten approval and they too are contracted by the larger countries.
“What some of those countries have been saying to us is that, ok, we can give you a small amount, we can sell you but only if your order is up to a certain size,” he said.
“It has to be in a confidential arrangement, meaning we are not going to expose what we’ve been charged for it,” he said.
“Different people could be charged hugely different prices and required to keep those prices confidential,” he said.
“The large suppliers and the major countries have bought up all the supplies and the suppliers ate telling us that they are unable to access orders from us because of their commitment to those who have ordered,” he said.
Rowley said that suppliers are willing to sell to smaller buyers but only in confidence and with the assurance that smaller buyers keep the price quiet.
“So far, we have not been able to access the vaccines,” Rowley said.
“In terms of purchasing, we’ve advanced further with the offer from the African Medical Supplies platform, there is an arrangement where we have all agreed to put in our request for what we can have from them. We are required to pay and all countries are required to pay so that the shipment could be made and we are committed to do that,” Rowley said.
The African Medical Supplies is purchasing the vaccine as a bloc.