Health officials are dispelling the notion that the AstraZeneca developed COVID-19 vaccine is not as good a vaccine as the more popular Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.
The concern stems from the efficacy rates of the vaccines. The AstraZeneca vaccine has an efficacy rate of between 60 and 70 per cent while the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have an efficacy rate upwards of 90 per cent. However, the Pan American Health Organisation/World Health Organisation (PAHO/WHO) representative Dr Erica Wheeler assured during a Ministry of Health press conference on Monday that it is just as good.
“You may also note that the flu vaccine has a variable efficacy of between 40 and 70 per cent yet all the countries of the world take the flu vaccine. So this is not a case of a second class vaccine,” she said.
“The reason why Trinidad and Tobago is receiving these vaccines, as it said in the communication we received (from COVAX), is that there is a shortage of the Pfizer vaccine and decisions have to be made about who gets Pfizer- it’s limited- and who gets other vaccines.”
The AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be given emergency use authorisation by the WHO in the coming days and Dr Wheeler assured that the WHO would not do this for a vaccine that is not safe or ineffective.
“There is no such thing as WHO approving a second rate, second class, or unsafe vaccine because we have very stringent international codes, some of which are also legal, that we must follow before any vaccine is approved for global use,” she said.
Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh said that despite having a lower efficacy rate, the AstraZeneca vaccine had a major advantage in its distribution logistics.
“The fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine is stored at two to eight degrees, which is the current storage temperature for the current flu vaccination means we can roll out the vaccines faster as opposed to (the) Pfizer which has to be stored at minus 70 (degrees). And once you thaw out Pfizer, you only have three to five days to administer those vaccines,” he said.
“So the AstraZeneca is logistically much easier, therefore, you’d get much faster coverage rates, higher compliance across the country. So there are significant advantages.”
Former health minister Dr Emanuel Hosein shared his experience with polio when he was a child and urged the public to take the vaccines when they arrive.
On Saturday, Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh announced that T&T has been allocated between 100,000 and 120,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the COVAX facility. The country bought into the facility back in September. The doses are expected to reach T&T by March.
Deyalsingh said this first batch would constitute the first phase of vaccinations and would be carried out in the public healthcare system. At the top of the list to receive the shots would be healthcare workers and then it would be extended to the elderly, those within the public sector with non-communicable diseases, essential workers and the most economic or socially vulnerable in the country.
To facilitate administration in the elderly population, he said the ministry begun reaching out to long-stay homes. In particular, he said the ministry was gathering information on the relatives or guardians of elderly people at these homes who may not be in a position to make an informed decision and give consent for the shot. This he said was to prevent any subsequent legal issues. This first phase of distributions, he said, would be monitored closely and its outcome would inform the roll-out of the second phase of vaccinations.
“There is nothing like real-world application to throw up problems which you cannot foresee,” Deyalsingh said.
If there are doses left from the first batch of vaccines of if the ministry procures additional doses, he said the ministry would commence with the second phase of vaccinations. This phase, he said would be a mass vaccination programme. It would be in collaboration with the T&T Medical Association (TTMA) “to man three of four mass vaccination sites throughout the country.”
“We are not starting with mass vaccination sites at the start because we want to get the experience. We want to know if there are any side effects as rare as they could be and how to treat it,” he said.
There would also be village outreach programmes before finally allowing private hospitals to assist.
According to the Minister of Health, there is currently capacity to store 390,000 doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines.
“At NIPDEC we have capacity of 120,000. The Arima General Hospital was built with a chiller. They can store 120,000. The new Point Fortin Hospital pharmacy was built with a chiller-(with a capacity to store) 100,000. Tobago has a chiller. They can store 50,000. Couva hospital, unfortunately, was not built with a chiller and that is why we have to go in now and construct a chiller there,” he said.
Deyalsingh said the contract to build the chiller at the Couva hospital was awarded and site visits are underway. However, he noted, “we can more than get by without the Couva chiller.”
The AstraZeneca vaccine is currently being used in the United Kingdom, Argentina, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Hungary, Thailand, South Africa, and the European Union.