Trinidad and Tobago is among the Caribbean countries late to order COVID-19 vaccines.
T&T waited until the Indian-made vaccine received World Health Organisation (WHO) approval before reaching out for vaccination donations.
The Serum Institute in India received that accreditation in mid-February.
In an exchange with Guardian Media yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley sought to clarify why T&T was behind countries like Barbados, Guyana and Dominica with regards to the roll-out of the vaccine.
On Wednesday before the media event to start the rollout of the vaccinations, Guardian Media messaged Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh asking about the 2,000 vaccines from Barbados and whether there were any purchase orders for the rest of the orders.
The Minister responded saying “as we have stated numerous times this is a gift. Free. Therefore no purchase order needed”.
Hours later, the Minister said that the vaccines from India were for the region and that Barbados was just the distribution hub.
By 10 pm that evening, he issued a clarification, reverting to what he had initially told Guardian Media, that the 2,000 vaccines were in fact a gift from Barbados and that he was “misinformed”.
According to a Caricom report, India was making some 500,000 vaccines available to the Caribbean, but Rowley, who is also head of Caricom said he had no idea what that was about.
There have also been reports in the Jamaican Gleaner about the 500,000 vaccines being offered to Caricom countries.
According to those reports, the Indian High Commissioner assigned to each country said that the distribution of the vaccines would start once the host country completed its approval process.
“I don’t know anything about any 500,000. As far as I am aware from my conversation with my colleague PM Mottley when the offer of vaccines were made to me we were talking about her gift of 50,000. It is from this 50,000 that she generously offered and I accepted 2,000,” Rowley said.
“Trinidad and Tobago has been in touch with India through our Foreign Ministry and the Indian High Commission here and those contacts have not revealed to me yet any gift batch of 500,000 vaccines from which we can draw,” he said.
Rowley is also defending his Health Minister amid calls for him to step down saying that Deyalsingh was not in communication with the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, but that he was.
“Prime Minister (Mia Amor) Mottley of Barbados indicated to me (not the Minister of Health) that Barbados was offered 50,000 doses of a vaccine from India and that she was making a gift gesture of 2000 of these doses available to Trinidad and Tobago for “ essential persons” ( including PM and Cabinet),” he said.
“I accepted the offer knowing that not all suppliers of these products from India had received WHO clearance. I anticipated and it did come to pass that by the time we got the items and waited a while the WHO only recently certified the source supplier in India and thus we were able to use these vaccines, not on Cabinet but on our frontline health care givers,” he said.
Rowley said that the country’s national program is on track.
“Monies have been paid, local preparations have been made, orders and negotiations outside of the COVAX supply are currently underway and we are close to receiving and using our anticipated supply,” Rowley said.
“Vaccines are currently said to be available from many sources around the world, not all of which carry the quality assurance stamp of the WHO,” the Prime Minister said.
“It is up to individual governments to determine how they treat with the various sources and supply chains, Rowley said.
He said that in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, in order to protect the citizenry, the country will “maintain our policy of working within the COVAX, WHO and PAHO and expect to receive our safe quotas from myriad sources as soon as they become available”.
PM: Opposition fighting for relevance
After Deyalsingh’s misstep yesterday, the Opposition called on the Prime Minister to remove him from his post. But Rowley dismissed this call.
“What issue?” he asked.
Rowley said that the United National Congress (UNC) was once again up to “pure mischief” and that this was the “usual disruptive behaviour” from a “deranged Opposition Leader struggling for relevance”.
Rowley did not think that Deyalsingh’s misstep was enough of a reason to axe the Minister of Health.
“As All Caricom countries are busily engaged in positioning ourselves to obtain vaccines from a turbulent pandemic market environment we in Trinidad and Tobago are careful to obtain and accept vaccines only from sources which have WHO approval and certification,” he said.
“This is for the protection of our population,” he said.
Rowley said he would continue to “ignore the persistent attempts of the irresponsible Opposition whose only aim is to undermine the national effort and disturb the psyche of the people of Trinidad and Tobago”.
“Notwithstanding the best efforts of the Opposition Leader and her few followers the people of Trinidad and Tobago can continue to rest assured that their interests are well served in the management of this pandemic challenges by a Government which has been careful at the beginning and remains competent and caring to the end,” he said.
Foreign Affairs in contact with India
Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Amery Browne yesterday told Guardian Media that his Ministry was “working closely with the T&T Ministry of Health to secure the purchase of 250,000 doses of the COVISHIELD vaccine from India”.
The Minister said that this was part of our Government’s broad-based efforts to acquire vaccines for the population “against the backdrop of a global environment that has become highly competitive with respect to vaccine acquisition”.
“I have been in discussion with the Indian High Commissioner who has agreed to facilitate and expedite T&T’s purchase arrangement, in close collaboration with their Ministry of External Affairs,” he said.
“This has been formalized via Diplomatic Notes and I have also written directly on the matter to the Honourable Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs of India,” Browne said.
“The Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM Affairs continues to collaborate with the Minister Terrence Deyalsingh as the Ministry of Health explores the best options to meet our local vaccine requirements,” he said.
Browne did not respond to questions about when his Ministry contacted the Indian High Commissioner.
“Bear in mind that the Covishield vaccine was only approved why the WHO for use against Covid-19 on 15 February, 2021,” he said.
According to international reports, the WHO accredited Serum Institute in India, the manufacturers of the COVISHIELD vaccine for Astrazeneca in mid-February.
By January 23, the PM of Barbados has written to Indian PM Narendra Modi and by the beginning of February was thanking him for the 50,000 vaccines.
What is COVISHIELD
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is being manufactured in India by the Serum Institute of India, which has been touted as the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.
According to international reports, the company said that it is producing more than 50 million doses a month.
The vaccine is made of a weakened version of the common cold virus from chimpanzees and has been modified to look like the coronavirus but cannot trigger the illness.
According to Serum Institute, when the vaccine is injected into a patient, the immune system starts making antibodies and that pushes the immune system to attack any coronavirus infection.
The inoculation is administered in two injections between four and 12 weeks apart.
Because it does need to be stored in any unique refrigeration it is easier to distribute.
COVID vaccine timeline
1. October 9, 2020
Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh says T&T is part of the Covax global collaboration for delivery of vaccines. At the time Deyalsingh said that the country had invested some $66 million for 462,000 vaccines enough for 33 percent of the population.
2. December 11, 2020
PM says preparations for the Covid vaccine has been made and the country is ready to receive the vaccinations whenever it becomes available.
3. December 24, 2020
PM says he’d be first to get the vaccine as soon as it is in the country. Jokes that Deyalsingh would be second. PM says that he would encourage his family to get the vaccine too.
4. January 4, 2021
PM says T&T in line to receive vaccines in the first quarter of 2021. He said that the Covax vaccine was part of a 162 country arrangement and the vaccine would be distributed in a phased basis. He said then that 20 to 30 per cent of the population would get vaccinated by the end of March into April.
5. January 29, 2021
PM said the whole world, including the Caribbean was facing delays in receiving the Covid vaccine.
6. February 3, 2021
PM says he was looking for more vaccines to service T&T. The additional vaccines would complement the 100,000 to 120,000 doses from Oxford-AstraZeneca from Covax. The Covax allocation was given a end of February arrival date.
He said that though a Caricom arrangement with the African Medical Council another 226,000 vaccines would be made available.
7.February 10, 2021
Barbados shares 2,000 vaccines with T&T from its cache of 50,000 received through donation from India.
8. February 13, 2021
PM says that he would pursue pharmaceutical companies for more vaccines.
At the time, the PM was responding to questions from Opposition member Dr Roodal Moonilal and said that he knew nothing of an approach from India to gift T&T vaccines.
9. February 17, 2021
Vaccine roll out begins. Neither Deyalsingh nor PM take first jab as promised. Both men say they will wait for the bulk of the vaccines to come in and won’t take from this small, first batch.