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…urges swift response; equitable access to vaccines must be global priority
Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne has called attention to rising cases of COVID-19 in the northern Amazon basin “that demands a swift response.”
“In Peru’s Amazonian state of Loreto, every ICU bed is occupied by a COVID patient,” she said, and Colombia’s state of Amazonas is reporting the country’s highest COVID rates.
Dr. Etienne noted that “in Brazil, the Amazonian state of Acre faces an emergency due to a deadly combination of COVID-19 infections, a dengue epidemic and flooding in several cities. Nearly 94% of ICUs are occupied and the health system risks collapsing as more and more patients require hospitalization. Other Brazilian states are also reporting high ICU occupancy rates, putting the country on alert.”
But while the Americas continues to be the “epicenter” of the pandemic, Dr. Etienne said, it is behind in vaccination because most countries cannot access the doses they need through bilateral agreements with the manufacturers.
“Expanding equitable access to COVID vaccines in the Americas must be a global priority,” she asserted. “Wealthy countries are rolling out vaccines, while many nations have yet to receive a single dose,” she continued. “This disparity harms our principles of solidarity. But more than that, it’s a self-defeating strategy. As long as COVID-19 endures in one part of the world, the rest of the world can never be safe.”
She pointed out that in the past week, “the Americas accounted for 55% of deaths reported worldwide.” In total 34,000 people died from COVID-19 in the Americas in the past week and 1.1. million were infected. Since the start of the pandemic, 51 million people have been infected regionally.
Other COVID-19 hot spots are in El Salvador, the indigenous province of Guna Yala in Panama, and Guatemala’s northern municipalities, Dr. Etienne reported.
“The diversity of scenarios across the Americas reminds us that complacency can be deadly,” Dr. Etienne said. “Without effective control measures, in just a couple of weeks, infection and hospitalization rates can spike drastically. We must continue to monitor infection rates closely and rely on proven public health measures when the virus surges.”
She reported good news elsewhere in South America, where infections continue to drop. The U.S., Mexico and Canada report continued decline, while every country in Central America is seeing a drop in cases. In the Caribbean, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Turks and Caicos are reporting declines in both COVID-19 cases and deaths, following enforcement of stricter public health measures.
In a welcome development, Colombia on Monday became the first regional country to receive vaccines through COVAX, the only global mechanism working to ensure equitable access to vaccines, regardless of countries incomes. In COVAX’s “First Wave” shipment, 117,000 doses of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine arrived in El Dorado International Airport in Bogota.
“The arrival of COVAX vaccines in our region is an historic milestone and the culmination of months of negotiations and a commitment to global solidarity,” Dr. Etienne said. “These first doses mark the beginning of a new phase of our COVID response.”
In the Americas, 36 countries are participating in COVAX. Ten are Advance Market Commitment (AMC) countries that will receive COVID-19 vaccines free of cost, while the rest are self-financing.
Dr. Etienne reported that COVAX told participating countries that a total of 28.7 million doses of vaccines would be delivered by May 2021. She said some countries have already made necessary preparations, and PAHO is placing orders and preparing COVAX deliveries, with shipments likely to arrive in mid-March. But a few countries still need to approve COVAX contracts, ensure they have the proper regulations in place and make payments.
“We urge our Member States to make this a priority so they can receive these long-awaited doses,” she 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, prioritizing those most at risk, like our health workers, the elderly and people living with pre-existing conditions.”