With the potential kick-off date for the government’s mass vaccination programme against Covid-19 still fluctuating between late this year and early next, this week saw the first meeting of the Alberto Fernández administration’s new vaccination committee against coronavirus.
Officials concentrated on planning the logistics demanded by the distribution and inoculation of the vaccines due in the next few months, with a view to having almost a quarter of the population – or some 10 million people – protected before next winter approaches.
The Government House meeting was headed by President Fernández, Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero and ministers Ginés González García (Health), Agustín Rossi (Defence), Eduardo “Wado” de Pedro and Sabina Frederic (Security).
Who will be vaccinated first?
The government’s plan is simply to start vaccinating as soon as possible, thus heading off the complications of the second wave now hitting Europe. The government has sought to establish intense contact with various countries and international labs working on the development and manufacture of vaccines.
Priority for vaccination is given to health workers, those aged over 60, younger adults in risk groups, members of the security forces and teachers.
The Vaccination Committee estimated those aged over 60 alone at some 7.7 million among the “vulnerable” population (or 7,735,317 to be exact, according to the first Interior Ministry count). Some 2.8 million younger persons in risk groups, 763,000 health workers and around half a million in the security forces bring the total close to 12 million, according to official sources, without the inclusion of over a million teachers (identified as a priority group at the specific request of President Fernández, according to González García).
The numbers double if, as many labs are already anticipating, a double dose is needed. The security forces will be required for the nationwide logistics, hence Frederic’s presence on the Vaccination Committee. The government is already making a census of those aged over 60 via the National Registry of Persons.
What vaccine will be used?
Four international labs currently head the race to halt the coronavirus pandemic out of a total of 11 vaccines in the final phase of clinical testing: Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Russia’s Gamaleya Institute (Sputnik V) and Oxford-AstraZeneca (working in collaboration with the mAbxience lab in Argentina).
All four have claimed to be over 90 percent effective while differing in certain fundamental aspects such as the temperature required for storage.
Earlier this month President Fernández confirmed that Argentina would be purchasing 25 million doses of Sputnik V if it is found to be effective and safe. The presidential image has picked up slightly in recent days, the result of the vaccine announcements according to some analysts.
"Heeding the instructions of President Alberto Fernández, we are working closely with the provinces, municipalities and all political parties because this is a public health problem which involves us all," said "Wado" de Pedro after Tuesday’s meeting, adding that his Interior Ministry had placed its system of electoral logistics at the disposal of his health colleague to co-ordinate potential vaccination centres with provincial health ministries within the Federal Health Council.
"The national state will be buying all the vaccines while all the provinces will be financially assisted for the purchase of inputs and equipment," the government sources detailed.
When will the vaccine be ready?
Health Minister González García ventured at a press conference that vaccination would begin in the first half of January while adding that the date was "absolutely subordinated" to having the vaccine available with none approved yet.
"The more people vaccinated, the less the contagion and the pandemic. The president has said that he wants to make an epic out of this.
“We want to vaccinate as many people as possible as soon as possible. We are integrating all government actions into one synergy.
“The vaccine does not replace civic conduct, we need to keep looking after ourselves. I feel a huge relief and hope with the vaccine, like everybody else, but I also feel that sometimes this makes some people relax, believing that everything is resolved and it’s not," the minister underlined.
Getting a vaccine to Argentines – A logistical nightmare
Rossi said that his Defence Ministry would contribute all the means of air and land transport of the Armed Forces to the logistics of transferring the vaccine so that from the day the vaccine arrives in Argentina, its distribution can be in place as designed.
Apart from the distribution of the vaccine against Covid-19, there is also the question of application. The government understands that it will not be simple to muster the 60,000 health workers needed nationwide with their unions denouncing that they are under-equipped with thousands infected in their ranks.
While professional sources point out that there are now less cases, thus providing a window of opportunity as long as there is no second wave of Covid-19, they also say: “It’s vital for doctors to be able to take a break.”
Not only must there be sufficient numbers of nurses and health staff but they must be ready to transfer to the most remote zones of the country – here the Armed Forces could play a central role. In these areas the cold storage of vaccines like Pfizer is an especially stiff challenge, as well as the transfer of vaccines to remote and mountainous zones.
Last Tuesday’s first meeting of the Vaccination Committee outlined an objective of training up 60,000 health workers for mass vaccination or one for every 733 Argentines. While the risk groups (also including health workers, teachers and the security forces as essential workers) number 12-13 million, reaching the entire population would require almost 100 million doses. González García has thus already explained that all those aged below 18 without life-threatening problems would be excluded from the programme, at least in its first stage. Some of those in the risk groups would also be staffing the 60,000 vaccination agents, thus falling on both sides of the process.
Should there be a second wave, it would be much harder to take people away from the main battle front in the health centres, some of them badly stricken by the virus in recent months. In fact, unions grouping doctors and health workers have been complaining about the lack of regular consultation on the part of the authorities over decisions relating to facing up to the pandemic.
A survey by the Observatorio del Derecho Social, linked to the CTA trade union umbrella, has estimated that 38,000 health workers have been infected in the first seven months of the pandemic, of whom 160 died.
Aside from under-equipment and the lack of leave, pay arrears (apart from a bonus of 5,000 pesos granted by the national government) have triggered protests by doctors and health workers in over half the country (including the provinces of Buenos Aires, Chubut, Córdoba, Jujuy, La Rioja, Salta, San Juan, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe and Tucumán).
Salta is one province where the local authorities have already been in contact with the military. The commander of the Army’s 5th Mountain Brigade, Colonel Mariano Castelli, has met up with provincial Public Health Minister Juan José Esteban to co-ordinate the tasks of transport and storage, even offering the nurses being trained for immunisation access to such tricky zones as the Chaco Salteño, the Puna plateau and the departments of Iruya and Santa Victoria.