COVID-19: Vaccine roll out starts in parts of the Pacific

By Sela Jane Hopgood of RNZ

COVID-19 vaccinations begin in the Northern Mariana Islands this weekend, but it's not yet clear when other Pacific countries will have access to a vaccine.

The Northern Marianas, which is a US territory, was expecting 5000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to arrive during the week, and vaccinations were expected to start on Saturday, RNZ Pacific correspondent Mark Rabago said. The vaccine had already been approved in the US and the UK.

It must be stored at around -70C, and transported in special boxes, packed in dry ice.

Once delivered, it can be kept for up to five days in a fridge.

"A couple of weeks ago our Government purchased and received 10 ultra-cold freezers. The freezers we ordered came from South Korea, and we have two sent to Tinian and Rota and the rest will be used in Saipan," Rabago said.

The country had already been sent a "mock package" of the vaccine as a trial, from the US federal Government, to test the systems they had in place to transport and store it, which went well, he said.

"There is a first-priority group that will receive the vaccine first and they are the healthcare workers, first responders, high-risk patients, and seniors.

Congressman and Northern Mariana Islander Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan had volunteered to be injected in public, and the Governor Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres also said he and his family were available to be vaccinated to demonstrate confidence in the vaccine if they were asked to.

New Zealand offers vaccines to six Pacific countries

New Zealand now has agreements in place to secure enough vaccines to vaccinate everyone in the country, as well as everyone in Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Niue, and the Cook Islands, if the Governments of those countries accept the offer.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the announcement this week, saying that if the vaccines are proven to be safe and effective, then the government's first priority will be to vaccinate border workers, essential staff and their household contacts.

The arrangements are for 750,000 courses of vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, 5m from Janssen, 3.8m from AstraZeneca and 5.36m from Novava.

And Minister for Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta said $75 million of development assistance had been set aside to support global access to the vaccines, and roll-out.

That included $10m in donations to the COVAX programme, to countries that might otherwise struggle to afford it.

COVAX is co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Gavi, and the alliance of Governments, drug companies, charities and aid organisations. It aims to deliver two billion vaccine doses by the end of next year, which could be provided to 20 percent of the most vulnerable people in 91 countries.

The programme relies on cheaper vaccines that haven't been approved yet, instead of frontrunners like the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and while it has non-binding supply agreements with three major vaccine developers, all have had significant trial delays.

COVID-19: Vaccine roll out starts in parts of the Pacific
Photo credit: Getty

The Solomon Islands seeks vaccines for half its population

The Solomon Islands had applied for enough vaccines for about half their population through the COVAX programme, said Ministry of Health spokesperson Pauline McNeil.

An application was made for more than 360,000 people, and if successful, this would be co-financed by the Solomon Islands Government.

"[We've] conducted a national cold chain capacity assessment, to check the available vaccine storage capacity, and identified gaps to be addressed prior to receiving Covid vaccine," McNeil said.

The country has also set up a coordinating committee and technical working group, which were being supported by technical advisors at the WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank.  

Tonga working through WHO's plan

Tongan Ministry of Health chief executive Dr Siale 'Akauola said the country had been working with development partners "for a long time" to prepare for the vaccines. The kingdom had also applied to COVAC for vaccines and was awaiting a response.

"We are conscious of the efforts by all countries to get their population vaccinated," 'Akauola said.

"The Pfizer vaccine is a fairly high tech vaccine that requires a very sophisticated way of cooling them and I think it may be beyond the capacity of Tonga to use that type of vaccine, but we will continue to watch and plan what's best for Tonga."

Authorities were working through a plan developed by WHO and UNICEF to help countries roll out the vaccine, and it was being developed to fit the Tongan needs.