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CARICOM targets 80% herd immunity

Published:Wednesday | July 7, 2021 | 12:12 AMJovan Johnson/Senior Staff Reporter

CARICOM leaders ended their annual meeting on Tuesday with a bullish pronouncement that they are targeting 80 per cent herd immunity from COVID-19 in the region by December 31 amid concerns about vaccine supply.

Chairman of the bloc, Gaston Browne, said the governments are “determined” to achieve the target as he announced plans to pursue a set of stimulus measures, including cutting taxes for intraregional travel and installing a travel bubble to support hard-hit tourism-dependent economies.

CARICOM has a population of around 19 million though heavily tilted by Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago – all accounting for more than 80 per cent of that figure.

“Our priorities are equitable access to vaccines and how we treat with the emerging COVID variants,” said Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, at a press briefing following the last session of the virtual meeting.

He explained that CARICOM’s confidence is built on the sources individual governments have been utilising to access vaccines: donations from the United States, the Africa Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP), and COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing programme.

“The world is literally opening up on us and we have to move quickly to achieve herd immunity so that we can control the further spread of COVID and its variants. We obviously have to move assiduously to try and avoid further hospitalisation and deaths,” the chairman said.

Browne did not provide additional details, but The Gleaner has obtained a copy of a presentation made by the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) which appears to form the basis of the projections.

It noted that up to June 10, nineteen CARICOM states and four associate members accessed 2.1 million vaccines, of which 80 per cent has been administered. CARPHA said that “represents 19 per cent of the total population vaccination coverage”.

Haiti was not included, as the French-speaking country did not start vaccination up to then.

Among full CARICOM member states, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, and Dominica were the top three countries, with 50 per cent of their population receiving at least one dose of a vaccine.

Trinidad and Tobago (nine per cent) and Jamaica (seven per cent) completed the rear. Jamaica’s numbers may have since trended towards 10 per cent – some distance from the projected 65 per cent full vaccination for March 2022.

Some 3.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been “pledged” to CARICOM through the AMSP, a 100 per cent increase over the previous commitment.

CARPHA revealed that in March, the AMSP said it would withdraw AstraZeneca from the offerings and replace them with Johnson & Johnson. The price for those new drugs was given under a not-for-profit regime of US$7.50 per dose, a 25 per cent discount.

But CARICOM states have been lax in completing the requirements for the AMSP offer, with only four states up to June 10 reportedly meeting all the criteria, which include making a 15 per cent deposit.

Jamaica’s status is not clear, but the four states are expected to receive their first tranche under the AMSP in August.

COVAX, meanwhile, accounts for 35 per cent of the total vaccines accessed by the CARICOM population, which means the bulk has come from bilateral donations.

Vaccines donated by the United States are expected to be in the region by the end of this month, with CARPHA updating that the White House indicated on June 18 that the number of doses “will be substantially increased”.

The precise allocations to CARICOM states are not yet clear.

In early June, the US announced a global donation of 80 million doses, with 25 million for immediate disbursement.

Meanwhile, CARICOM’s heads agreed to consider cuts in intraregional travel tax for six months, as well as a travel bubble for a similar period, Browne announced.

He also said a meeting is to be held between cruise liners and regional authorities to agree on protocols to restart that aspect of the tourism industry.

There was not much movement on some long-standing integration issues such as freedom of movement.

Two issues have cropped out in recent times – the proposal for enhanced cooperation where a group of countries could push ahead with advanced integration while others catch up, as well as the issue of reciprocity where countries opt out of implementing decisions but whose nationals can still benefit.

Browne said there was agreement in principle on enhanced cooperation but further decisions have been pushed back to the next heads of government conference in July 2022.