The Ministry of Health (MOH) aims to vaccinate 15,000 people in Palau against coronavirus by mid-spring, MOH representatives said at a workshop on Thursday.
With two COVID vaccines currently waiting for emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Palau is tentatively scheduled to receive doses of a vaccine from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by January 2021.
Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a public-private partnership between the US Government and numerous vaccine manufacturers, promises availability of vaccines not only to US states, but also to territories and Freely Associated States, such as Palau.
Currently, two vaccines, BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, have applied for emergency use by the FDA. Although neither of the vaccines have yet been approved, with both demonstrating around 95 percent effectiveness in clinical trials and the United Kingdom already having approved use of the Pfizer vaccine, experts believe that meetings scheduled by the FDA on December 10 and 17 will end in emergency use approval, with millions of doses being distributed in the US before the end of the year.
The MOH says that, even if the vaccines are approved, Palau will likely not be receiving any during December due to certain “logistical barriers”, such as the ultra-cold storage required of the first-generation Pfizer vaccine. However, should the vaccines be approved, it is likely that Palau will be receiving doses by January of Moderna and second-generation Pfizer vaccines, which would require storage in cold but more manageable temperatures.
Both vaccines require two doses taken 28 days apart in order to effectively fight the virus. In order to successfully vaccinate 15,000 people in Palau, which is 80 percent of Palau’s population, the MOH would need 30,000 doses of the vaccine.
The MOH and CDC have already been collaborating to develop a distribution plan for Palau. A tentative schedule organized by the MOH, which is subject to change depending on OWS allocation, plans for 10,000 doses to vaccinate 5,000 people every six weeks, starting in the beginning of January and finishing towards the end of April. The priority group which is scheduled to receive the first shipment of the vaccine includes healthcare personnel, essential workers, adults with high-risk medical conditions, and people over 65 years old. The general population will receive doses from subsequent shipments.
The MOH stressed that none of the shipping dates are definite, and coordination with OWS remains ongoing.
Although the vaccine will not be mandatory to take, the MOH says that it is important that the people of Palau understand that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which means that they do not involve being given a “weakened” strain of the virus—something which often causes alarm when people hear it. Instead, they involve injecting mRNA instructions into cells to make a “spike protein”, which triggers the same immune response the body uses to fight off coronavirus.
The MOH presented these developments at a workshop on Thursday morning at West Plaza Hotel, which involved stakeholders from numerous sectors of Palau, as well as representatives from the media.
The MOH emphasized that safe vaccination against COVID will still require the community to adopt “new normal” practices, which include thoroughly washing hands, maintaining social distancing measures, and healthy hygiene.