Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, left, looks on as a member of the media takes his influenza shot at the Divali Nagar, Chaguanas on Monday. – Photo by Angelo Marcelle
Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh says vaccine fatigue among the population may be why Government had to dump nearly 800,000 doses of covid19 vaccines in 2023.
Speaking at the launch of the Health Ministry’s influenza vaccination drive at the Divali Nagar in Endeavour, Deyalsingh said the last remaining batch of covid vaccines had to be destroyed in September last year as they had expired.
The news came as Deyalsingh also revealed that TT has recorded five covid-related deaths in the last three weeks, after almost two months of no covid cases or deaths.
Deyalsingh revealed two of the covid-related deaths occurred between December 28 and December 31, 2023, while three more people died between January 1 and January 15, 2024.
He described the “wastage” of the vaccines as a global phenomenon.
“People were just not coming forward for covid vaccines. Many people got vaccine fatigue. Many people believed the misinformation and disinformation about covid vaccines, unfortunately.
“They believed all the outright lies about covid vaccine. And that’s unfortunate. To have dumped 795,000 doses of vaccines represents a terrible waste.
“And again, this is a global phenomenon where covid19 vaccines are being dumped by the hundreds of millions around the world.”
He pointed to news articles which said that almost 500 million covid vaccines, worth an estimated US$6 billion, were destroyed by Japan, the US and European Union countries combined.
Deyalsingh was unable to provide an estimated cost of TT’s expired vaccines, as he said it included multiple batches and brands of vaccines some of which were donated, not bought. He said even if he were able to quantify the figures, he was barred from discussing the cost of the vaccines because of a non-disclosure agreement signed with the manufacturers.
However, in October 2020, Deyalsingh revealed government allocated US$9,741,236 for the purchase of 462,000 vaccines through the COVAX facility, meaning each vaccine cost approximately US$21.08
If this figure is to be used, the dumped vaccines were worth US$16,758,600 or $113,690,995.99.
He said sourcing new covid vaccines is also proving difficult as manufacturers are not willing to sell any less than 100,000 doses in a single order.
“These vaccines are not manufactured and put on a shelf and you go like a store and pick it off a shelf. You have to commit to a minimum purchase.”
Drug manufacturers can produce approximately five million doses of vaccines per week, and Deyalsingh said they were “not going to turn on a factory to make 2,000 vaccines.”
He said, “One of the reasons why small countries can’t get vaccines now is that the vaccines come in multi-use vials with ten doses per vial.“Now, if we have such low levels of uptake, if I spent $10 million to bring in vaccines and then I open one vial to vaccinate one person, what happens to the other nine doses? They are wasted. This is the problem small countries are being faced with.”
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Deyalsingh said government is instead trying to reach out to countries who may have vaccines to donate, but that is also proving difficult.
“Even those countries who have to donate will tell you we will only donate a minimum of 5,000.”
He said despite the challenges, the government is trying to acquire more covid vaccines.
Deyalsingh said nine people are hospitalised with covid, including one person in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).
He said only the San Fernando General Hospital and the Couva Hospital and Multi-Training Facility are accepting covid patients.
“In Couva, we have three ward-level patients. At San Fernando General Hospital, we have four adult ward-level patients, one paediatric ward-level patient, and one ICU patient.”
He said the sudden increase in cases is in keeping with what is occurring internationally, as there “seems to be an uptick in covid cases.” He said this is even more prevalent in the northern hemisphere, where many countries are experiencing winter.
Adding to the concern is the emergence of the JN1 strain of the virus, which has led to a rise in hospitalisations across the US.
General manager of Primary Care Services at the North Central Regional Health Authority (NCRHA) Dr Abdul Hamid said the JN1 is not more transmissible than any other previous variant.
“The JN1 is one of the generations of the Omicron strain, from what we know, and it is not any different. There’s no difference in transmissibility or infectivity or complications arising from this particular strain as it is so far.”
Deyalsingh said as of Sunday night, the JN1 strain had not yet been detected in TT.
“That does not mean it’s not here. It could be here, it just hasn’t been detected,” he said.
Deyalsingh appealed to the elderly population and people vulnerable to the virus to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.
“These five deaths have been found to be in the typical population, that is, the elderly with comorbidities, hypertension, diabetes and so on.
“So we want to send out a special appeal to families with elderly with comorbidities to take the usual precautions, mask-wearing, sanitising, distancing.”
Deyalsingh is also encouraging the public to get vaccinated against the influenza virus so that the flu vaccines do not meet the same fate.
The ministry received 75,000 doses of the (2023/2024) influenza vaccine on October 2, 2023 and has distributed 22,566 doses.
TT has already recorded one death from the flu virus, which Hamid explained is different from the common cold. He said it results in many complications, particularly in pregnant women and people with comorbidities such as hypertension, obesity or respiratory diseases.
“It has somewhat of a quick onset. You also have very high fevers, muscle aches, body pains, and then your convalescent period is much longer than your common cold.
“Common cold is typically typified by upper respiratory symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing and so on, whereas the influenza virus more commonly has lower respiratory tract infections and so on, including muscle pains, body pains, and it could present with diarrhoea, vomiting, other gastrointestinal symptoms and so on.”
The influenza season runs from October 2023-May 2024 and coincides with the flu season in North America.
Deyalsingh suggested the increase in travellers to TT during Christmas and Carnival poses an additional risk for the spread of the flu virus, and is urging the population to get the vaccine.
“Whilst one influenza death may not sound like much, it is an absolute tragedy for the family, and we want to avoid that. We want to avoid more families having to see about their loved ones.
Director of Women’s Health at the ministry Dr Adesh Sirjusingh urged pregnant women to take the vaccine, as pregnancy is a high-risk factor with the flu virus.He said previous cases of the flu in pregnant women in TT have even resulted in death.
“Some of the complications that we do see in pregnancy would be the flu, (which) can cause stillbirths, pre-term labour, as well as having smaller babies, as well as the maternal complications.”
He said the vaccine will also protect the baby, who is susceptible to many illnesses in the first six months of its life.
“For women who accept the vaccine, you create antibodies that will pass across to the placenta and actually go to the unborn baby whilst in utero and give some level of protection for that newborn baby, as well as similarly, once that woman breastfeeds and has been vaccinated, the same process happens. Antibodies go to that baby while breastfeeding.”
The vaccine is available for free at all 109 health centres across TT and several mass vaccination sites.
“We are at the Divali Nagar site…we are also at Trincity mall to serve the East-West Corridor, and the different approaches will be going out to other malls and so on from later on this week,” said Deyalsingh.