The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is urging countries in the Americas to make sure they are prepared to roll out COVID-19 vaccines. Information provided voluntarily to PAHO by countries shows important advances, but some gaps remain.
Key areas for a successful vaccine roll out include the development of national vaccination plans, establishment of expedited regulatory processes, preparation of health workers, and strengthening of cold chain capacity.
“Member States supported by PAHO have been working tirelessly in responding to the challenges (of the pandemic), and are now getting ready for, or implementing, the COVID-19 vaccination,” PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne said to regional ministers of health during a recent meeting on COVID-19 vaccines. “PAHO will continue to support its Member States to ensure programmatic, operational and financial readiness for procurement, delivery, and administering of COVID-19 vaccines.”
“I want to recognize once again the tremendous efforts of all countries to respond to this monstrous challenge,” Dr. Etienne continued. “We will reach the end of the tunnel, but only if we go together. COVID-19 will not be defeated until everyone is safe. Our public health response to the disease must therefore leave no country or no one behind.”
As of February 8, 30 countries of the Americas provided information about their COVID-19 vaccine readiness through the Vaccine Introduction Readiness Tool, or VIRAT, an online platform maintained by PAHO/WHO, UNICEF, and the World Bank. Of those, 21 had shared their national vaccination plan and 20 had reviewed their cold chain equipment and procedures. Three cold chain temperature ranges are expected for the various COVID-19 vaccines under development: +2-8°C, -20°C, and -70°C.
PAHO Assistant Director Jarbas Barbosa encouraged ministers of health to regularly provide updates about their readiness to VIRAT, since it identifies technical cooperation needs. The platform assesses country readiness for COVID-19 roll out in 10 areas: Planning and coordination; Budgeting; Regulatory; Prioritization, Targeting, and COVID-19 Surveillance; Service Delivery; Training and Supervision; Monitoring and Evaluation; Vaccine, Cold Chain, Logistics, and Infrastructure; Safety Surveillance; and Demand Generation and Communication.
It is important to involve the national regulatory authorities in the process to assess the national capacities in key aspects such as authorization and importation procedures, assessment of cold chain capacities, and investigation of Adverse Events Following Immunization (AEFI), advised Barbosa. A recent survey showed that 43% of the national regulatory authorities in the Region of the Americas were not aware of the VIRAT platform.
The VIRAT platform is continuously updated to allow public health authorities, academic institutions, and civil society to track readiness for COVID-19 vaccines roll out.
The COVAX Facility, the global mechanism to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccines regardless of countries’ incomes, estimates it will provide 35.3 million doses to the countries of the Americas between February and the second quarter of 2021.
PAHO has provided technical assistance to help countries prepare for vaccine deployment. It also has assisted countries in monitoring safety data; with logistics to coordinate delivery of doses and their monitoring; with recruiting and training staff so health personnel know how to deliver vaccines; and with public information campaigns to ensure people know where, when and why to receive their doses.