CASTRIES, St Lucia, (OECS) — The 6th Special meeting of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Authority was convened virtually on Friday, March 19, 2021, under the chairmanship of Roosevelt Skerrit, prime minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica.
Further to the notification released by the OECS Commission on Thursday 18 March 2021, the meeting welcomed the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and his team.
In the main the meeting discussed, interlia; update on ACT-A Facility and update on the COVAX facility; safe and sustainable economic recovery; bridging the supply gap – OECS seeking to bridge supply gap; procurement and finance; virus variants, vaccines and transmission, vaccine passports and quarantine.
In his opening remarks, Dr Ghebreyesus commended the heads of governments of the OECS for their success in protecting people of the Eastern Caribbean in the fight against COVID-19, lauding the OECS as one of the best performing regions in the world for protecting its population. Notwithstanding the success on this front, Dr Ghebreyesus acknowledged the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the economies of Eastern Caribbean countries given the disruption to the critical tourism sector – the main revenue-generating industry for most of the OECS Member States. In the spirit of friendship, Dr Ghebreyesus revealed that to bridge the vaccine gap in the region, he has spoken to vaccine manufacturers specifically about the situation in the Caribbean.
The Heads of the government of the OECS expressed their appreciation to Dr Ghebreyesus, and by extension the WHO, for maintaining constant communication with Small Island Developing States (SIDS), especially in the Caribbean and being an advocate for the region.
Chairman of the OECS Authority, prime minister Skerrit said: ‘On behalf of the Authority, I wish to express our pride and gratitude in the manner in which you have taken on the leadership of this important international organisation because your leadership in this time of crisis has been nothing short of exemplary and you have managed the challenges of the position fearlessly and without favour.
The OECS Authority commended the WHO for the ACT Accelerator as a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19.
In the main; the OECS Authority presented the following considerations during the meeting to the WHO director-general and his team.
The OECS Authority highlighted the challenges that SIDS faced in terms of vaccine equity and lamented the fact that the OECS had not yet received any vaccines from the COVAX Facility. Given that the economies of the OECS region were severely impacted as a result of the effect of the pandemic on tourism, the OECS Authority suggested that access to vaccines could be facilitated if the WHO would move more swiftly to approving more vaccine manufacturers; which would inevitably speed up production and potentially reduce gaps.
Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA)
The meeting received a report from Dr Joy St John, the executive director of Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA). CARPHA made it clear, and WHO agreed, that it did not support vaccine passports for ethical and other reasons.
CARPHA urged WHO to support access to affordable vaccines for OECS Member States in a timely manner. Further, Dr St John urged PAHO to use its significant negotiation skills to support the procurement of vaccines for more than 20 percent of the population per country. Supporting the OECS Authority on its call for support for technology, equipment, and cybersecurity for Member States; Dr St John stressed the challenges presented to OECS Member States namely; the need to stagger vaccine orders based on available funding and economic ability; the need for effective communication campaigns to counteract messages that are harmful to vaccination and tourism; and the need to address manufacturing delays and/or export restrictions that threaten access to vaccines.
The director-general of the OECS Dr Didacus Jules briefed the WHO director-general Ghebreyesus on the efforts being made within the OECS to ensure that no Member State was disadvantaged in the drive to ensure equity of access to vaccines. He outlined the approaches that have been made to secure substantial quantities of other approved vaccines and a procurement strategy that seeks to lock in volume quantities but with staggered supply, intervals to cater for any possible re-vaccination needs in the event of virus mutation. Dr Ghebreyesus undertook to support the appeals for assistance being made by the OECS to these sources.
Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO)
In response, Dr Carissa Etienne, executive director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) offered that access to vaccines was an ongoing problem and that PAHO/WHO were working to secure vaccine donations for SIDS through the COVAX Facility recognising the economic and geo-political constraints on OECS Member States. In relation to the strengthening of healthcare, the Executive Director suggested that OECS Member States needed to invest more in their healthcare systems, especially in primary healthcare.
Dr Etienne said: ‘We are working with some of the self-financing countries [in the OECS] through the Revolving Fund to provide credit facilities and to help with other resources. Most of the Member States can expect the first shipment from the COVAX Facility on April 5 or April 6. Information has already been communicated through your ministries of health.’
World Health Organisation
In thanking the OECS Authority for a comprehensive discussion, the director-general committed to raising all the issues identified in today’s meeting at the March 23, 2021 meeting with vaccine producers.
WHO director-general said: ‘Accessibility should be considered based on vulnerability rather than the economy of scale that some countries have. That’s the right approach and I think we can push in that direction. From the WHO side, I would like to assure you that we will give the Caribbean at large, and OECS, our attention.’
Dr Ghebreyesus also offered that the WHO was committed to giving the OECS and the Caribbean attention on this and to brokering and facilitating vaccine purchases and donations in the immediate term to increase the protection for people of the OECS region. Pausing for a moment to recognise the efforts of Dr Timothy Harris, prime minister of the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis.
‘I would like to appreciate the leadership by His Excellency Prime Minister Timothy Harris representing, not only the OECS but the Caribbean at large at the Facilitation Council. His presentation was very clear and his support and leadership at the Facilitation Council is much appreciated,’ he stated.
In relation to the sustainability of the economy, the WHO director-general stated that the WHO was willing to lobby on behalf of OECS Member States with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to discuss lives and livelihoods, convinced that access to concessional borrowing was important because SIDS in the Caribbean were regularly affected by events that increase vulnerability issues.
He confirmed that the WHO did not support vaccine passports as a requirement for travel. It was instead moving towards a Digital Health Initiative – an electronic database and an e-certification process. Basic data standards had already been issued to countries to manage vaccine programmes.
Dr Ghebreyesus suggested that countries needed to have more than the 27 percent population vaccination coverage that was facilitated by the COVAX Facility and that it was important for the Caribbean to revise its figures to have a more realistic reflection of its vaccination needs.
In closing, Dr Ghebreyesus reassured the OECS that the WHO wanted a longstanding and strategic partnership with OECS Member States to strengthen health systems, increase production capacity, effective universal primary health system and assisting economic recovery.
Following the discussions with Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the OECS Authority continued discussions for the 6th special meeting of the OECS Authority which included the Organisations’ work programme and budget approval; before ending their deliberations for the day.
The work of the Organisation, under the direction of Dr Didacus Jules, has continued to amplify efforts at securing procurements for Member States during the pandemic whilst ensuring that the organisation maintained frugal and conscientious management of its resources. The OECS Commission would continue procurement and its efforts to access much-needed vaccines for its Member States, whilst fostering more agile approaches to dealing with the challenges that the region is faced with, in the delivery of its mandate.