Terrence Deyalsingh

Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh

Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh today defended the Government’s position in what is being labelled a tardy approach to the implementation of Trinidad and Tobago’s vaccination programme.

Noting that the Government has come in for unwarranted criticism from certain factions in society as well as members of the Opposition, Deyalsingh stated that in this era of misinformation and disinformation, the Government’s vaccination plan is being misconstrued, ripped apart and reconstructed by those who should know better, to give a narrative designed to breed ill-confidence in the Government’s vaccination plan.

“Commentators and certain Opposition Leaders are pointing to countries that have started their vaccination plan, and why we have not started as yet,” said Deyalsingh, who was speaking at Monday’s virtual COVID-19 media conference.

“We have said from day one that Trinidad and Tobago, as per protocol, will only be allowing into the country vaccines approved by WHO (World Health Organisation), once they get Emergency Use Licence or Emergency Use Agreement. We must note that when we are compared to other countries that have started their vaccination programmes, many of these countries, as is their right as sovereign states, are using non-WHO approved vaccines and we can have absolutely no problem with that. So we are not comparing like with like, we are comparing apples with oranges.”

Stating that Trinidad and Tobago’s model for managing COVID, by all objective measures, has proven to be successful, he added that lives and livelihoods were saved and that most of the sectors in the country were in fact open.

“The vaccination which Trinidad and Tobago has used for over fifty years has proven to be successful. And one of the key success factors in fifty years of vaccinating people is that people must have trust in the vaccine. This tried and proven method of using WHO-approved vaccines has served us well for fifty years.

He said that fact is supported by one nurse who appeared on a previous COVID-19 update programme stated that in her 10 years of vaccinating people she has never had to fill out an adverse event form.

“And that is why I’m confident that once we start to vaccinate persons on this tried and tested method for fifty years, it is going to prove successful.”

Constraints to vaccination start

“The Pfizer vaccine which was not originally a part of COVAX, got approval on December 31, 2020. So as far as the COVAX Facility is concerned, Pfizer has only been available two-and-a-half months. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine only got approval on February 15, one month ago. And the Johnson and Johnson vaccine got approval on March 12, three days ago.

“So I want all those who are intent on creating mischief and misleading the population… I’m speaking directly to the population now, the vaccines approved by WHO - Pfizer approved two-and-a-half months now, Oxford AstraZeneca which we are expecting in this country, on February 15, only one month ago, and Johnson and Johnson three days ago. So that is where we are in the line-up of having WHO-approved vaccines.

“But the population also needs to understand, and we have said this before, that WHO not only approves the vaccines as per normal neo-drug process in Trinidad and Tobago, they also approves the sites of manufacture,” Deyalsingh said.

Stating that the AstraZeneca vaccine is being manufactured in many plants around the world such as the United States, Europe, South Korea, The Health Minister noted that the WHO has only approved two sites under the COVAX Facility for its manufacture, the Serum Institute of India and South Korea’s SK BIO, which presents a further limitation.

“It is our information that the vaccines we will be getting under the COVAX Facility, hopefully by the end of March, are coming from SK BIO, the South Korean plant.

“The reason why I’m going into such details is that the population must understand the due diligence that both Trinidad and Tobago and WHO engage in to make sure that the vaccines that we supply to persons to go into your arm, are safe and efficacious.

In further support of the of the Government’s position, Deyalsingh drew reference to the suspension of the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine by some European countries over persons experiencing adverse events from certain batches manufactured in Europe although no link has been made.

“But could you imagine if I as Minister of Health advised the Government to bring in any vaccine from a plant that is not visited by and signed off by the WHO, and similar concerns were raised locally.

“Whilst I know we are all anxious, and I’m anxious, safety of our local population must trump expediency,” Deyalsingh said.

The Health Minister noted that the Government’s approach to its vaccination plan is based on policy, science and evidence.

He said the country’s vaccination plan began when the Government signed on the COVAX Agreement on September 18 last year, which was followed by a Cabinet Note that spoke to the WHO’s objectives of using COVAX to vaccinate twenty per cent of the world’s population or of that of countries that signed up to COVAX, to end the acute phase of the pandemic within one year or hopefully, by the end of 2021.

“The Cabinet Note went a bit further, that we will seek to source through COVAX enough vaccines to vaccinate thirty-three per cent of the population, outside of the initial twenty per cent.”

Stating that 33% would be just over 500,000 persons, Deyalsingh added that according to the science, if a country wants to achieve herd immunity, between 50%-70% of its population must be vaccinated, which is outside of the COVAX figure.

He said outside of COVAX, Trinidad and Tobago began formal bi-lateral talks on October 1, 2020, which continue up to present, with countries and also vaccine manufacturers who to date have all said that they’re not selling vaccines to third parties or private entities, they are only dealing with Governments.

“Other approaches are being managed through the Caricom Secretariat which manages the African Medicine Council’s platform,” Deyalsingh said.