By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT
THE Pan American Health Organisation is urging countries currently administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to continue despite concerns from some quarters, saying the benefits outweigh any potential risk.
The vaccine became the subject of controversy when a number of European countries suspended administering the shot as a precaution after a small number of people developed blood clots. No evidence has been produced to support any link between the cases of blood cots being caused by use of the vaccine.
Last week, the Bahamian government received 20,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which were a gift from India.
Yesterday, PAHO said the vaccine batches in Europe which are under question will not be distributed in this region. Officials also addressed fears over safety.
“PAHO needs to report that those two batches that are being reviewed in Europe are not going to be distributed through those that are allocated to the COVAX mechanism for this region which are produced in India and the Republic of Korea,” Dr Sylvain Aldighieri, PAHO’s incident manager for COVID-19, said during a virtual press conference.
“In addition to this, the surveillance mechanisms have not reported any warning signs in connection to the safety of the vaccine in the Americas where they are already administering the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“For that reason and taking into account that the benefits of the vaccine exceed the risks, WHO (World Health Organisation) recommends to continue using the AstraZeneca vaccine to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Investigations are underway on the European cases and we do not anticipate an impact on the distribution through the COVAX facility.”
The Bahamas has also purchased vaccines through the COVAX facility, which are expected to arrive in the country soon.
Dr Aldighieri acknowledged the concerns of the European nations.
“We are aware, clearly, of the concerns as the result of some disorders in some countries in Europe within the context of the COVID-19 vaccine administration,” he said. “Some European countries have halted the vaccine produced by AstraZeneca as a precaution.
“The world advisory committee on vaccine safety with WHO is assessing the data that is provided by the European connection with two batches of the AstraZeneca vaccine that was manufactured and distributed in Europe. We are awaiting the final outcome of that assessment.”
Dr Carissa Etienne, PAHO director, gave an update on the number of infections and deaths in the region and warned that even though vaccines are now available, the virus continues to spread. She said not only are infections in the region rising but so are deaths.
“Over the last week, nearly 1.3 million people became sick with COVID-19 in the Americas and almost 31,000 died because of this virus,” Dr Etienne said. “Today we’re seeing the virus pick up speed in about half of the countries in our region. The US and Mexico are reporting a drop in new infections, while cases in Canada are accelerating – particularly among young adults ages 20-39.
“As new infections are decelerating in the Caribbean, many islands are reporting a rise in COVID-related deaths – including a doubling of COVID deaths in some islands. Cases are on the rise in many South American countries, like Uruguay, Ecuador, and Venezuela. In the last week, Paraguay’s health system issued an urgent warning as hospitals have filled with COVID patients.”
She added that data must continue to inform officials and implored regional governments to act at the first sign that infections are on the rise by implementing measures to slow down transmission.
As of yesterday, nearly 138 million doses of COVID vaccines have been administered in the Americas – although just 28 million of these doses have taken place in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The much anticipated Johnson & Johnson vaccine was given its emergency use authorisation last week from the World Health Organisation, making it the fourth vaccine to be authorised by WHO.
PAHO said by offering protection with just one dose, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine promises to accelerate vaccination efforts. PAHO also said COVAX has secured over 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in 2021 and up to 500 million through 2022, with doses expected to start arriving in the region in July.
Dr Etienne said this is not a time for countries to let their guard down, but instead to keep hope alive.