Stop ‘Hoarding’ Vaccines In Warehouses – WHO’s Top Latin American Official Calls On Rich Countries For More Donations
PAHO Regional Director Carissa Etienne welcomed recent announcements of vaccine donations from the US as well as Spain, but urged other countries to donate surplus vaccine doses to Latin America and not hoard the life-saving vaccines in “warehouses” .

While aid is rushed to India, WHO’s Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has called out rich countries to donate more “desperately needed” coronavirus vaccines to Latin America and the Caribbean – in the face of persistently high levels of COVID-19 infections in that region, which has consistently been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

The call from PAHO came as the WHO European Region (EURO) on Thursday reported a significant decline in new cases, hospitalisation and deaths for the first time in a month – a bright spot that may be due to the growing impact of expanding vaccination campaigns.

At a briefing on Wednesday, PAHO Regional Director Carissa Etienne welcomed recent announcements of vaccine donations from the US as well as Spain – the latter directing surplus doses to Latin America. But she also urged other rich countries to stop hoarding life-saving vaccines in “warehouses” and follow suit.

“No vaccines should be sitting in warehouses where they can be promptly used to save lives,” she said, adding that: ““This pandemic is not only not over, it is accelerating,” she warned. “Our region is still under the grip … in several countries of South America the pandemic in the first four months of this year was worse than what we faced in 2020.”

Vaccine supplies to the region continue to “languish behind our urgent need for more doses… That’s why we urge countries with extra doses to consider donating a significant portion of these to the Americas, where these life-saving doses are desperately needed and will be promptly used,” she said.

“Significant portions” of donated vaccines also are needed for vulnerable populations, including migrants,” she stressed, adding, “expanded vaccination will also ensure that all people and economies can begin to reopen, rebuild and recover.”

Vaccine Donations So Far

The Spanish government last week announced that it would donate 5-10% of its vaccine doses to Latin American and Caribbean countries – once Spain a reaches 50% immunisation rate.

“The announcement from Spain is a show of solidarity, and your contributions to the well being of all,” said Etienne, adding, “WHO also congratulates the United States government for their announcement earlier this week that they will share up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“We urge other countries to pick similar components,” she said.

The US government has said its excess vaccine doses will go to WHO co-sponsored COVAX global vaccine facility. A large portion of those vaccines, observers say, are likely to go to crisis-ridden India – although some may find their way to Latin America.

In addition, France has announced that it will donate 500,000 vaccine doses to the COVAX initiative by mid-June – although those appear mostly earmarked for west African neighbours with which France has close ties. Indeed the first batch of 105,000 donated AstraZeneca vaccines began arriving in Mauritania in April.

New Zealand also will redirect 1.6 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines pre-purchased through COVAX to low- and middle-income countries, after deciding in March that it will vaccinate its population with only the Pfizer vaccine, due to its higher efficacy. At least some of New Zealand’s surplus is expected to go to neighbouring Western Pacific island states.

Latin America Remains Hard-Hit Region In Acute Need

New Coronavirus cases by WHO region, as of 28 April 2021

That leaves Latin America, one of the world’s regions hardest hit by the pandemic in need of still more big vaccine infusions.

In PAHO, where a 1.1 % increase in new cases was recorded on Wednesday, many health systems are “struggling to cope” with an influx of COVID-19 patients, especially the younger population who are less frequently vaccinated and more often exposed, said Etienne at the briefing.

Increased exposure, a shortage of vaccines has led to an increase in hospitalisation she added, and have also resulted in increased consumption of critical inputs, including oxygen, intubation drugs, personal protective equipment and infusion pumps.

“Nearly every country in Central America is reporting a rise in infections. Hospitalisations are at an all time high in Costa Rica, and we expect more patients will require care as the country reported a 50% jump in cases,” she said.

Infections also remain high across other parts of South America, she added. In Colombia ICU beds are running out in major metropolitan cities, such as Bogota. Similar situations exist in hard-hit Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.

“It’s no surprise then that many countries in our region have tightened public health measures by extending curfews, limiting re-openings, and imposing new stay-at-home orders,” she said. “These decisions are never easy, but based on how infections are surging, this is exactly what needs to happen. We know these measures work, and I commend leaders across our region for putting health first.”

Vaccine Alone Won’t End Pandemic

WHO PAHO regional director Dr Carissa Etienne said significant portions of donated vaccines are needed for vulnerable populations in the region, including migrants.

More than 317 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the Americas, but more than 70% of these have been distributed in the United States.

Along with bilateral vaccine deals, Latin America and Caribbean nations, have received seven million doses in the first allotment procured through COVAX, the global partnership to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines. A second shipment of vaccines through the COVAX facility is due between May and June.

However, so far vaccine rates range from highs of 73 doses per 100 people in upper-income Chile and 46 doses/100 in Uruguay; to 17 doses or less/100 in about 18 other Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and El Salvador.

In the Caribbean, access varies widely from a high of 30 doses/100 people in Antigua to lows of 1/100 in Trinidad. In Paraguay, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Venezuela and Honduras, authorities have administered just one dose or less. Central America 1 dose or less in the Caribbean and Central America.

Etienne said, adding that PAHO is able to “quickly” deploy vaccines to countries in the Latin American region that are heavily impacted by the pandemic – citing its 100% implementation rate so far, with available supplies. .

In order to disburse available vaccines efficiently, countries have organised drive-thru vaccination and door-to-door campaigns to reduce the chance of transmission.

“Thanks to these efforts, our region has administered nearly every COVAX dose it has received thus far,” Etienne said. “Our region has demonstrated that it can successfully distribute COVID-19 vaccines quickly and effectively.”

Etienne however cautioned that particularly in light of the limited supplies, vaccines alone would not put an end to the pandemic. She encouraged social distancing, wearing of masks and washing of hands to help reduce the spread of the virus:

“We will only overcome this pandemic with a combination of rapid and equitable vaccine access and effective preventive measures.”

In Europe, COVID-19 Numbers Drop Significantly for First Time

WHO EURO regional director Dr Hans Kluge said COVID-19 vaccines are saving lives and will change the course of the pandemic and eventually help end it.

Meanwhile in Europe, infection numbers seem to be finally dropping sharply – even though only 12.5 % of Europe’s population has been fully vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, said WHO’s European Office on Thursday.

“Based on numbers of confirmed cases, 5.5% of the entire European population have now had Covid-19, while 7% have completed a full vaccination series,” WHO EURO Dr Hans Kluge said at a briefing, adding that new cases “fell significantly” last week for the first time since 1 April, when new cases peaked at over 300,000 in 24 hours. “Yet, infection rates across the region remain extremely high,” he pointed out. On April 28, there were 180,000 new confirmed cases across the region.

To date, some 215 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the WHO European region’s 53 member states, which include Turkey, Israel and central Asian states of the former Soviet Union.

Approximately 16% of the region’s population has had a first vaccine dose, and 81% of health workers in 28 countries have had a first dose.
“Where vaccination rates in high-risk groups are highest, admissions to hospitals are decreasing and death rates are falling,” said Kluge, citing that as evidence that the vaccines are already having an impact. “Vaccines are saving lives, and they will change the course of this pandemic and eventually help end it,” he said.
However, vaccinations alone will not “end the pandemic”, he, too, warned, also emphasising the need for continued testing, quarantine, contact tracing and social distancing measures.

“Without informing and engaging communities, they remain exposed to the virus. Without surveillance, we can’t identify new variants. And without contact tracing, governments may need to reimpose restrictive measures.”

Image Credits: WHO PAHO, WHO , PAHO.

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