Fiji first Pacific country to benefit from COVAX Covid-19 Vaccines

The first batch of COVAX Covid-19 vaccines in the Pacific has arrived in Fiji.

About 12,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine was sent to Fiji by the UN Children's Fund as part of the World Health Organisation's COVAX initiative.

The Fiji government said while the vaccine cost them $US30 million, AstraZeneca was ideal for the country's storage capability.

At least 600,000 Fijians need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to ensure the country is protected against infection, the government said.

It said about 6,000 front-line and essential workers would be the first to receive the jabs

With Covid restrictions in place, only about 100 people were allowed to attend last night's historic event at Nadi International Airport.

Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama joined delegates from his government, UNICEF, WHO, EU, New Zealand and Australia to mark the arrival of the vaccine.

Bainimarama said the AstraZeneca vaccine was one of three Covid-19 vaccines that had been recommended by the WHO strategic advisory group of experts on immunisation.

The WHO recently listed AstraZeneca and Oxford University's Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use, widening access to the relatively inexpensive shot in the developing world.

"It's a small step but it's a start towards protecting Fijians from a plague that has claimed more than 2.5 million lives around the world," Bainimarama said.

"The AstraZeneca vaccine is shown to be safe and very effective. It has also been approved by the health boards of the United Kingdom, European Union and at least 14 other countries including India, Australia, Taiwan and most recently by the Fiji Pharmaceutical Board."

The Fijian leader said millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had been administered around the world.

He said data had shown that it is reducing Covid case numbers and deaths.

Bainimarama said front-line workers would be the first to receive the vaccine.

"This first batch of vaccines is designated for doctors, nurses, health inspectors, quarantine facility staff, aviation and maritime staff and members of our disciplined forces who have defended our borders throughout this pandemic.

"These Fijians serve on the front-line of our Covid-contained strategy. They are the first to receive the vaccine because for obvious reasons they face the highest risk of exposure to the virus."

The UN Children's Fund in the Pacific said the arrival of the vaccines marked an important start to the COVAX initiative in the Pacific.

UNICEF's Sheldon Yett, who was at the airport, said the vaccine was manufactured in South Korea.

He said UNICEF's role was to ensure the vaccine is safely transported to the cold-chain facility.

"Fiji has the capacity to store the vaccines," he said. "Together with our partners at the WHO, we have carried out assessments on cold-chain facilities in Fiji so we're confident of the capacity here.

"This is just the start. The vaccine is being brought here by the COVAX facility led by GAVI and supported by the WHO and its partners. It's designed to support the most vulnerable including Fiji's healthcare workers.

"We're excited with the arrival of the vaccine to Fiji. It's an important part of our global effort to address this pandemic and it's critical that the vaccines arrive here in the Pacific."

Yett said the Health Ministry had been working with frontliners to ensure they were ready to receive the vaccine.

He said while there were no major setbacks in getting the vaccine to Fiji, the operation was a complex one as 'it isn't easy to get the vaccines to every corner of the world'.

But this had been able to happen because of the 'great government partnerships, the assistance from donor partners and the joint leadership by GAVI, WHO and UNICEF' to get the vaccines on the ground.

"The vaccine rollouts will take time as there are still not enough vaccines around the world. Supply is growing quickly. We're confident of the groundwork that's been done by the government.

"There is an urgency to get the vaccines to the people. Fiji does not have any community cases of the virus. Of course the economy has been hard-hit here and throughout the Pacific with border closures and the impact on the tourism industry.

"But it's really important that we don't look at the vaccines as the only measure. It's important that we continue to apply trial-tested measures to prevent control or transmission - physical distancing, good hand hygiene and those programmes that are already in place such test, trace, isolate and to treat people."

In order to keep all corners of the world safe, there was an effort to make sure the vaccine got to every corner of the world, Yett said.

He said the vaccines were welcomed by PM Bainimarama and foreign delegates from the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and the United Nations.

Like many of the other available vaccines, Bainimarama said AstraZeneca required two doses.

That means Fiji would have to maintain a careful record of who had been vaccinated and when they were due for dose number two, he said.

Bainimarama said the government had built an online registration portal to ensure a smooth nation-wide rollout.

"For now, that portal is limited to 6,000 of our front-line workers who will receive this first batch of vaccines.

"Once that phase is complete, we will announce the next phase of the rollout and more Fijians will be able to use the portal to register so that they too can be protected through vaccination."

Following phase one, those with pre-existing conditions and those over 18 years old will be vaccinated, he said.

Bainimarama said the development of Covid-19 vaccines would be the most complex, logistical effort in Fijian history.

He said the Health Ministry was well-equipped with the experience and know-how to lead the vaccine rollout.

"But they can't achieve that mission alone. This must truly be a national effort to succeed," he said. "Fiji has not had a Covid case outside of quarantine for more than 320 days.

"We have not seen the same loss of lives as our friends have endured around the world, our hospitals have not been flooded by Covid-stricken patients and the short lockdowns we experienced last year may feel like a distant memory.

"But no one should forget how serious this pandemic continues to be. They certainly should not pretend that it does and cannot affect us.

"We must not become an island of vulnerability in a sea of safely-immunised society. The only way we can ensure every Fijian's health and well-being is to see our people vaccinated along with the rest of the world."

Bainimarama said a Fijian recovery relied on "medically sound and consistent vaccine administration".

Fiji has had 63 Covid-19 cases, seven active in border quarantine with 54 recovered and two deaths.

The Health Ministry said Fiji has not had a case outside of border quarantine for the past 320 days.