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Gov’t banks on one-shot J&J, but Pfizer appears to be crowd favourite

Published:Tuesday | August 31, 2021 | 12:09 AMDavid Salmon/Gleaner Writer
A crowd swarms the National Arena vaccination site in Kingston on Monday.
A crowd swarms the National Arena vaccination site in Kingston on Monday.

The Jamaican Government could spend US$14.7 million, approximately J$2.3 billion, to purchase a cache of 1.972 million doses of the Johnson...

The Jamaican Government could spend US$14.7 million, approximately J$2.3 billion, to purchase a cache of 1.972 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine, a gamble it hopes will pay off with the one-shot fix to a deepening coronavirus crisis.

The bulk procurement – made through the Africa Medical Supplies Platform – translates to US$7.50 per dose – a 25 per cent discount on the factory rate of US$10.

That revelation by Howard Mitchell, chairman of the National Health Fund (NHF), gives insight into the massive spend the Holness administration may undertake to get Jamaicans to bare arms for COVID-19 shots to stave off an unprecedented wave of infections that has burdened hospitals and caused the collapse of nightlife.

But the State has had to bear auxiliary costs even when gifted vaccines. For example, Kingston paid the air freight costs of US$160,000 (J$24.8 million) for the April 2021 donation of 75,000 doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca from the South African government, Mitchell told The Gleaner.

It is unclear how much has been expended for vaccine purchases under the COVAX Facility – the pool administered by the World Heath Organization – which were negotiated directly by the Jamaican Government.

Recent shipments of Pfizer (200,000 doses) and J&J (115,200 doses) have given a jolt to Jamaica’s limping vaccination efforts, the momentum building as COVID-19 infections and fatalities soar and hesitancy retreats.


But sentiment on the ground – culled anecdotally – appears to show a shift in inclination for the Pfizer jab over AstraZeneca, a situation that could force the authorities to scour the market to meet brisk demand.

However, a pivot to Pfizer at this point could have economic consequences for the Government, with Mitchell admitting that its cost could be “considerably more” than AstraZeneca, which was priced at US$5.60 three months ago.

The vaccine market has been riven with volatility, with a fivefold surge in the cost of Pfizer to US$30 a dose in June compared to US$6.92 in January, according to data from suppliers cited by the NHF.

Some private sources are offering Pfizer at US$30 a dose – double the factory cost of US$14-US$15.

“Pfizer and Moderna are much more expensive than the AstraZeneca, the Johnson & Johnson, and the Indian vaccine,” Mitchell told The Gleaner.

AstraZeneca faced a series of marketing stumbles which saw Western European nations halt dispensation amid a relatively minuscule number of cases of blood clots. Various health authorities had initially cautioned against administering the jab to the elderly.

Those concerns have gradually faded after global health agencies gave the vaccine the green light, but reservations have still lingered internationally and on the domestic front.

An unscientific Gleaner survey of 50 attendees of the National Arena on Saturday found that the Pfizer vaccine was the overwhelmingly popular choice across all age cohorts.

Forty-one persons, or 82 per cent of respondents, expressed a preference for Pfizer, followed by 10 per cent, or five individuals, who favoured AstraZeneca. Two persons said they favoured J&J or had no preference.

Pensioner Marlene Robertson-Whyte gave Pfizer her unqualified backing.

“I heard that it is one of the best versus the AstraZeneca. Well, most of the older persons who I talk to prefer the Pfizer or the Johnson & Johnson,” Robertson-Whyte said, adding that she had delayed vaccination until the United States-made inoculant was available.

Olivia Davis said that her preference was based on research.

“I realised that at first they were saying that the AstraZeneca caused clots and there are some issues with fertility. I really didn’t want to have anything that affected my reproductive health, so I decided that I wanted the Pfizer,” she said.

Last Monday’s full approval of Pfizer by the United States Food and Drug Administration bolstered her confidence.

And Lawrence Smellie explained that the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine directly influenced his decision to get immunised against the highly contagious virus.

“Most of my friends prefer the Pfizer. We do this research in a group, so we planned to come today. About 13 of us are here today,” Smellie said on Saturday.

A Harris poll conducted June 4-6 found that nearly half, or 47 per cent of unvaccinated respondents in the US, said that full FDA approval would make them more likely to get the jab.

The Ministry of Health’s vaccine tracker, at 8 p.m. Monday, recorded 512,469 total doses, with more than 142,000 people fully vaccinated.

Those figures are likely to surge after crowds swarmed vaccination sites to get their shots.

As at Saturday, Jamaica had administered 67,459 doses of Pfizer and 441,855 of AstraZeneca.

Dr Melody Ennis, the island’s vaccination chief, revealed that an assessment of vaccine preference was ongoing but cautioned that it was too early to determine whether any overwhelming predisposition has been established.

“They are coming out now that Pfizer is available, I don’t know that anyone is turning down AstraZeneca now that Pfizer is available. We continue to administer AstraZeneca vaccines and persons continue to accept AstraZeneca,” said Ennis.

Mitchell said that, anecdotally, he saw a preference for Pfizer and J&J, but cautioned that he would want to review a scientific survey to form a final conclusion.

Four hundred thousand doses of Pfizer are expected to be shipped to Kingston over the next two months.

Mitchell said that the NHF was prepared to source more Pfizer vaccines if given the directive from the Government.

“If the Ministry of Health decides to want more, we believe that there is a reasonable chance of getting it, but I have received no instructions to that effect,” he said.