Dr Keith Rowley

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley 

Size matters.

Small orders for the Covid-19 vaccine “have no place in the line”.

That was the reality that Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley made clear as he dealt with the question of Covid-19 vaccine acquisition by small countries like Trinidad and Tobago.

The Prime Minister made an unscheduled virtual appearance at yesterday’s virtual Covid-19 news conference, in order to respond to claims made by Caroni East MP Dr Rishad Seecheran.

The Prime Minister said the path towards accessing vaccines for countries like ours was “not clear or was not there at all”. Responding to United National Congress (UNC) criticisms, Rowley said: “What is happening is that because of the limited supply of vaccines available to the world and being provided to two or three large countries, small countries are not even being allowed through the door to place the order. So it is wrong to say that Caricom countries have received vaccines and are vaccinating their population.”

Pointing to statements from the UN Secretary General and the World Health Organisation (WHO) director general, who both raised concerns about the obvious disparity in vaccine distribution between large and small countries, the Prime Minister said these statements should indicate to “any informed person” that there is a major problem with respect to the market place for these vaccines.

“What we have to be careful with in Trinidad and Tobago is not to fall into the hands of charlatans who may come to you and tell you that they could get vaccines for you because they know Mr X in India...or Mr Y in Bombay, or in New York or in Toronto, and go down that road and find that you taken where you pay money for an order and can’t receive the product. Or worse, that you buy a product which is not authorised and receive serious legal and other difficulties for misuse of a medical product,” the Prime Minister said.

Rowley said the environment was “very topsy-turvy” and who have corn are feeding their fowls and who have more corn are feeding more fowls. He said the US government has indicated that it would receive by July all the vaccines they need from suppliers to vaccinate its entire population. “Until they have satisfied themselves, the open market from the major producers...will not be available to small countries,” he said.

PM: Don’t play the race card

With respect to the doctor (UNC MP Seecheran) from Caroni East saying that the Prime Minister doesn’t want to take vaccines from India and “we want we vaccine”, the PM said: “Is a dog whistle...There is no issue or requirement here to raise any racial bogey and to try to stereotype anybody. We are all in this fight together.”

The Prime Minister said a lot of the country’s medications outside of Covid come from India, which is a major manufacturer of medication.

The Prime Minister said a US publication revealed the price range for the vaccine—from US$4,95 a dose under COVAX, to US$2.72 in India, US$3.25 in Europe and US$8.50 in Uganda.

“There are people hanging around us here in Trinidad and Tobago, some nationals of Trinidad and Tobago and some of them in the medical fraternity, seeking to ‘assist’ us with vaccines and they are quoting prices to us, thinking that we are in desperation, in the order of US$19 to $25 a dose. That should tell you how careful the Government has to be in treating with this requirement to obtain vaccines,” he said. He said there was one instance where a “fraudster’ had sought to obtain contracts to supply the vaccine.

The Prime Minister said the Government had been seeking bilateral discussions with places where there are vaccines. But, he said, his Government had not attempted to place any order with Russia and China, but was waiting to see whether the vaccines made in those places would make the approved WHO list.

He said vaccines for Covid-19 are not like other medical supplies which one can buy off the shelf. “This was a product that was only available following its approval by WHO in recent weeks,” he added.

The Prime Minister said small countries in the region seeking to get a second supply of Covid-19 (outside of COVAX) include Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and Trinidad and Tobago. He said these countries were operating as a group to access vaccines through the African Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP).

Gift pathway not open

“Our diplomatic contact with the African Union, being a large bloc of large countries with large populations and they were being treated seriously by the suppliers and they had a pathway to purchase vaccines...They agreed to assist us, that when they get their large block, they would look out for Caricom and make vaccines available to Caricom,” he said. “Because virtually nobody is talking to small countries to provide them with vaccines,” he said. The Prime Minister chastised Seecheran for claiming that Caricom countries had rolled out their supplies, were vaccinating their nations while T&T had not.

He said Barbados, which was being held up as a model for Covid, faced an “explosion” of Covid-19 which was centred around its prison and police, creating a national security problem.

He said it was in this scenario Barbados had appealed to a number of large countries to help with an instant supply of vaccines and India agreed to send an emergency supply of 100,000 doses.

He said Dominica, which had a crisis in the recent past, was also seen as a country that required some attention and India also gave that country some vaccines. Those were the two Caricom countries that received vaccines as a gift from India, the Prime Minister stressed, saying: “There was no pathway open (to others) to get gifts by asking for it.”

The Prime Minister said the Prime Minister of Barbados then made 2,000 doses available to T&T and 2,000 doses to Guyana.