The Biden administration says it is fighting local bureaucracies across Latin America and the Caribbean in its rush to deliver coronavirus vaccine doses to its neighbors, where COVID-19 cases are spiking and where only one in 10 adults are fully vaccinated, according to the World Health Organization’s Americas regional office.
Some of the hardest hit countries in the region, such as Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago, still have not seen any U.S. deliveries. Haiti remains the only country in the Western Hemisphere and one of five globally where the government has yet to administer any vaccines.
That is a result not of American bureaucracy, but of the countries’ own issues — a common problem in the region, Juan Gonzalez, special assistant to President Joe Biden and Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, told McClatchy in an interview.
“The first round of sharing has deployed at a slower pace because, for the United States to be able to export vaccines — even if we have procured them — they require agreements between the vaccine manufacturers,” Gonzalez said. “And so those often will take a lot of work on the host government side.”
One particular country that Gonzalez declined to name must pass legislation in order to allow vaccines in, he said, offering just one example of the difficulties.
“In another country, where we would have sent vaccines two weeks ago, they are only able to accept one type of vaccine, and they have particular domestic laws” that limit agreements, Gonzalez added. “The lawyers are going as quickly as they can, but sometimes bureaucracies don’t move at the pace of public health needs.”
Vaccine inequity between higher- and lower-income countries is an issue across Latin America, where limited access to the injections and slow rollouts have led to some of the world’s lowest vaccination rates. While the region is home to just 8 percent of the world’s population, it currently accounts for 32 percent of the global COVID-19 fatalities, according to an analysis by the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and the McClatchy Washington Bureau.
The Biden administration has committed to providing 80 million U.S. doses around the globe. After laying out plans for the distribution of the first 25 million doses, the administration recently laid out plans for the remaining 55 million.
Of that, 14 million doses have been earmarked for Latin America and the Caribbean through COVAX, the United Nations-led effort. The countries include Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and members of the Caribbean Community.
Additional doses also will be shared with the countries directly.
The United States has made initial deliveries to Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Honduras, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador so far, and on Sunday, the administration will send 1.5 million doses of Moderna vaccine to El Salvador, White House officials told McClatchy.
Last weekend, Honduras received 1.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, which was delivered by the Pan American Health Organization through COVAX.
But it’s not just laws that need to be passed and contracts signed, Gonzalez said.
“In the example of Haiti, because some of these vaccines need to be in the cold storage chain, some of these countries don’t have that infrastructure,” he said.
The U.S. Southern Command purchased 11 ultra-low freezers and partnered with Coconut Creek-based charity Food for the Poor to ship them to Haiti to store COVID-19 vaccines. The freezers arrived in Port-au-Prince Thursday, and will add to existing capacity so the country can receive more doses.
Ed Raine, president and CEO of Food For The Poor, said with the charity unable to donate vaccines, it decided to help ship the freezers to help lay the groundwork for vaccination in Haiti.
Dr. Lauré Adrien, the director general of Haiti’s health ministry, said the country is ready to receive the vaccines pledged by the United States.
“To our knowledge and to date, we already signed all of the documents within the time limits or even before,” he said. “If there are other special agreements to be signed, we are not yet aware.”
The freezers, he said, are currently being cleared through customs to be delivered to the appropriate locations.
“The ministry is ready to receive vaccines and start vaccination operations as quickly as possible. A deployment plan was developed and made public this week,” he said.
A deadly spike in COVID-19 cases combined with ongoing civil unrest and armed gang violence have created a humanitarian crisis in Haiti, where hospitals treating patients infected with the coronavirus have been overwhelmed and lack sufficient oxygen tanks and fuel.
As COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to mount in Haiti and elsewhere across the region, humanitarian aid workers, doctors and others have been pushing to receive vaccines from U.S. hospitals and states like California, Florida and Ohio — which have unused Johnson & Johnson vaccines that will expire between now and next month — rather than having them destroyed. So far, the federal government will not allow the redistribution to foreign countries, doctors and aid workers say.
“There have been some initiatives where you’ll have private sector, private parties that will try to procure or send doses. If there’s not an agreement between a vaccine manufacturer and the country, then it is not legal to do that,” Gonzalez said. “And so that’s what we’re trying to do, is facilitate that, and making sure that we are sending as many excess doses abroad as a part of our global leadership in combating the pandemic.”
This time last year, the world reported 10 million COVID-19 cases and 500,000 deaths. Last week, the total count was more than 72 million cases and nearly 1.9 million deaths, Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, said in a briefing with regional journalists.
Many Central American countries like Belize, Panama and Guatemala have registered an uptick, while in the Caribbean, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Saint Kitts and Nevis are seeing an increase in the number of cases.
“The situation in Haiti is also worsening as cases are climbing across the country and some hospitals are filling up,” Etienne said.
Infections are also still rising in many South American countries, including Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay, where intensive care units are full.