Chief Medical Officer Dr Pearl McMillan.
By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
A COVID-19 vaccine will be available in the Bahamas in the first quarter of 2021, Chief Medical Officer Dr Pearl McMillan assured during a press conference on Friday.
However, health officials could not give a definitive timeline for a vaccine’s arrival or significant details about the vaccination protocol.
Though officials say a vaccination strategy has been finalised and approved by Cabinet, the document has not yet been released to the public.
Dr McMillan said healthcare workers, frontline workers, people who are high risk for catching COVID-19 or succumbing to the disease are prioritised for the vaccination first. She said a phased approach will ensure high-risk groups are immunised, then other groups.
Asked which of the main three vaccines officials are inclined to buy, Health Minister Renward Wells did not say.
“We’ve already put down a down payment for 20 percent with the WHO through PAHO’s revolving fund so we’re seeking to secure the vaccine through WHO but The Bahamas government is keeping its options open and looking at its connections with distributors for the approved vaccine,” he said. “The prime minister will be updating the Bahamian people as we go along in regards to how we are progressing with securing the necessary vaccine.”
For her part, Dr Indira Martin, Director of the National Reference Laboratory, confirmed that the Bahamas does not have the capacity for the genomic sequencing that is necessary to determine if more infectious COVID-19 variants found in the United Kingdom and South Africa are present in the country. She said positive COVID-19 samples will have to be sent to an internationally accredited lab to verify the strain of the virus present in a sample.
It is not clear what health officials' plan is for determining which samples will be sent to labs for genomic sequencing and when.
“As we go ahead with our real time PCR testing, we have taken into consideration the need for us to identify certain indicators for us to actually send off specimens to determine whether or not we have any of the variants in the country,” said Dr McMillan.
Infectious disease expert Dr Nikkiah Forbes said it is difficult to distinguish the various strains in clinical settings because they all have the same features.
“It is very difficult to know that it is here unless you are actively looking for it and you are actively doing testing for it,” she said. “There is no clinical way to distinguish it.”
Earlier Friday, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis said ongoing mitigation measures will be required to combat effects new variants of COVID-19 if they are found in The Bahamas.
“The virus is more infectious, not necessarily more devastating in terms of the degree of the illness that it might cause, so one has to follow the same mitigation processes in terms of facial masks, social distancing and sanitation,” he told reporters in Spanish Wells on Friday morning. “I think once we follow that we will be okay. We will monitor the situation."
"We just came out of the Thanksgiving festival. We watched and expected an increase. The increase was marginal but manageable, it did not cause any serious issues. We came out of the Christmas, I think we are coming out of that now, the 14-day (incubation period) and therefore we expected an increase. It’s manageable. We will be watching to see what happens between now and Wednesday because that will be the time we will see the effects.”