Colombia became the first country in hard-hit Latin America to receive coronavirus vaccines through COVAX, a World Health Organization-backed alliance aimed at getting shots to countries with fewer resources.
A plane carrying 117,000 Pfizer/BioNTech doses landed at Bogota’s El Dorado Airport Monday, arriving as many in the region grow impatient over the slow pace of the COVAX vaccine rollout.
“Today marks a very important milestone,” Colombian President Iván Duque said. “Today COVAX makes its first delivery in the Western Hemisphere. And the first country to receive it is Colombia.”
Colombia reached an agreement in October to purchase 20 million doses through the COVAX initiative, enough to vaccinate 10 million people, or about one-fifth of the country’s population. But like many in Latin America, the Andean nation has scrambled to obtain more doses as the COVAX rollout drags on. So far the country has received 409,620 vaccines, including those that arrived Monday, and has one of the region’s lowest inoculation rates.
With more than 50 million confirmed cases and 1.2 million deaths, countries in the Americas are among the hardest hit by COVID-19, and the WHO estimates the region will have to vaccinate nearly 700 million people in order to contain the pandemic — a feat that at the current rate would be many months away.
Still, health officials were praising Monday’s shipment as an important first step.
“The arrival of these first doses in Colombia through the COVAX Facility is an encouraging step in the fight against this virus in the Americas,” said Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, the Americas branch of the WHO. “In a context where the availability of doses is still very limited, PAHO will continue to support the great efforts of countries in the region to obtain as many vaccines as soon as possible.”
Monday’s delivery is part of the so-called “First Wave,” a pilot program to deliver a limited number of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, which require ultracold refrigeration. Other doses from AstraZeneca/Oxford are scheduled to be shipped in the coming weeks to 36 countries in the region that participate in the mechanism, WHO said.
Besides Colombia, Peru, El Salvador and Bolivia are expected to receive doses as part of the first vaccine deployment.
The COVAX vaccines are arriving as frustration in Latin America grows as political leaders and citizens watch wealthier nations stock up on millions of doses. Many are also furious over a series of scandals in which political elites have jumped the vaccine line. The limited availability through COVAX has forced low-income countries to try to negotiate bilateral agreements with pharmaceutical companies or turn to India for donations.
In recent days, Caribbean nations have called on wealthier countries to share their supplies.
Jamaica’s health minister, Christopher Tufton, wrote in one of his nation’s daily newspapers that rich countries like the United States have left smaller nations like his at a disadvantage. The U.S., Tufton noted, struck unilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies for all of its 1.2 billion dose supply, four times more doses than its population.
“Wealth has moved some countries to the front of the line,” he wrote in the Jamaica Gleaner. “Other countries may have to wait until 2022 or later before supplies are widely available.”
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