PAHO outlines COVID-19 vaccine rollout for Latin America and the Caribbean

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DHL workers unload doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at an airport in Bogota, Colombia. Photo by: Colombian Presidency / Handout via REUTERS

Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are set to receive the next COVID-19 vaccine distributions to Latin America from the COVAX project, Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa Etienne said Wednesday.

Two of those countries, El Salvador and Bolivia, are part of the World Health Organization’s First Wave initiative, a global pilot program that delivers a limited number of doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to countries as part of the quota allotted by COVAX. Colombia and Peru are also participating.

“PAHO is working virtually with every country in our region to address pending documentation and requirements. As countries are ready ... orders will be placed on a daily basis. These shipments are the first of many, and all member states will continue to be supplied as more vaccines become available,” Etienne said.

She said that through May, PAHO expects 28.7 million doses to arrive in the region, where 36 countries are participating in COVAX, the global equitable vaccine access platform. According to WHO, the region will need to vaccinate approximately 700 million people to control the pandemic.

After COVAX announced country allocations last week, the first doses sent to Latin America and the Caribbean arrived in Colombia on Monday. Those 117,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are just the beginning of the 20 million that Colombia anticipates receiving from COVAX this year. The country began its vaccination campaign last week with shots obtained through bilateral agreements.

Etienne said Peru should be receiving its doses shortly.

“Expanding equitable access to COVID vaccines in the Americas must ... be a global priority. PAHO is committed to ensuring that our region receives the doses that we need as quickly as possible.”

— Carissa Etienne, director, Pan American Health Organization

The Americas have been hit harder by COVID-19 than any other region in the world, with 1.2 million deaths and more than 50 million confirmed cases.

In addition to Pfizer’s, shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine will begin to arrive in Latin America and the Caribbean this month through COVAX, WHO said. The first phase of COVAX distribution in the region will provide countries with enough doses to vaccinate between 2.2% and 2.6% of their total population — excluding small island states, which will receive enough to cover 16% to 20% of their population because of the logistical cost of small vaccine deliveries.

Etienne encouraged countries to prioritize people for vaccine distribution based on risk factors, putting health care workers, older people, and those with preexisting conditions at the front of the line. She said the region will see the same challenge with vaccines that countries have faced in obtaining other supplies during the pandemic; demand has often outstripped supply for items such as personal protective equipment, tests, and oxygen.

“Manufacturers are working around the clock to produce more doses and new vaccine candidates being reviewed and included in the WHO emergency use listing so that more vaccines will be hopefully available soon. But we expect that the world will continue to face a shortage of vaccines for much of 2021,” Etienne said. “As more doses are produced, we’ll see several waves of shipments arriving in the region every month. In the short term, doses will remain limited, and we must use them wisely.”

Latin America no longer region with most COVID-19 cases

After Europe overtook Latin America and the Caribbean in coronavirus cases, Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa Etienne said the region must not relax measures to combat community spread.

Despite the fact that 55% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths over the past week were recorded in Latin America and the Caribbean, Etienne said, the region is lagging behind in vaccination efforts because many countries cannot access doses through bilateral agreements with manufacturers.

Some countries also need to pass legislation to meet COVAX requirements, ensure import licenses and regulations are in place, and make payments to receive their doses through the facility, she said. Once PAHO receives purchase order information from Geneva, it works with countries to ensure these administrative requirements are in place. Then orders can be signed and countries can prepare for delivery.

Etienne called on countries to make sure that vaccine allocation within their borders is equitable and that doses are not immediately used on the privileged. Distribution plans must be transparent and address geographic and socioeconomic disparities, she said.

“If only a few are vaccinated, many will remain at risk. And this is not the outcome that we are working towards. So now we must do everything in our power to protect those most vulnerable everywhere,” Etienne said. “Expanding equitable access to COVID vaccines in the Americas must therefore be a global priority. PAHO is committed to ensuring that our region receives the doses that we need as quickly as possible.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.