Uncertainty looms over whether the Jamaican Government’s immunisation drive will be hamstrung after India placed a temporary hold on all exports of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Rising infections in the subcontinent have driven up domestic demand there and supplies to the COVAX Facility of the World Health Organization (WHO) are expected to be derailed.

That emerging crisis is projected to cause more than a month of delays.

Howard Mitchell, chairman of the National Health Fund, which is charged with the responsibility of procuring vaccines, told The Gleaner that he had a sense that the restrictions were near.

“We knew from long ago that any vaccines exported from India were subject to the permission of the Indian government, so we saw the tightening upcoming,” Mitchell told The Gleaner.

Mitchell said there are ongoing negotiations with nine other vaccine manufacturers.

“What we are doing is spreading the net as far and as wide as possible with the hope of satisfying our small needs. We are reaching out to anyone who has vaccines that we can acquire,” the NHF chairman stated.

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton admitted that the development will make it more difficult for Jamaica to source vaccines.

Jamaica is awaiting a shipment of 26,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines expected within two weeks, but with the ban, it is unclear whether there will be a delay. More than 64,000 doses were shipped in mid-March.

As at Saturday, 24,502 doses had already been administered.

“It is hard for me to tell [whether those will be affected]. It is through COVAX and, therefore, we have no direct control or no direct contact with AstraZeneca. I don’t know if they were already in the possession of COVAX or they were to be shipped. We can only wait to hear,” Mitchell stated.

Dr Guna Muppuri, who has signed a deal for the exclusive importation and distribution in Jamaica of the India-made COVAXIN vaccine, contends that it is now crunch time and the Government is in a conundrum.

“It is my belief, with the news now with AstraZeneca and that delay is going up to May and thereafter, there will be a lot more demand from many countries and you are not sure when the COVAX vaccine will come unless the US government will pump their excess. Everything is after July … ,” Muppuri told The Gleaner.

COVAXIN, manufactured by Bharat Biotech, has not yet received WHO approval but has been used in several countries, including in Guyana.

Muppuri believes it is now time for technocrats to decide whether in a pandemic, holding the hard-line stance that only WHO-approved vaccine is the best approach.

“I believe that the time has come now for chief medical officer, the medical fraternity, and the pharmaceuticals to advise the Government when to waive certain requirements and when to stand firm with certain requirements.

“If they go ahead and give approval for vaccine use without WHO pre-certification, they are going to face a certain amount of criticism. If they don’t and stand firm on this condition, they will have people losing lives,” Muppuri reasoned.

“It is a very difficult scenario for the ministers and the Cabinet,” he added.

Muppuri made it clear that he was not forcing the Government to resile from its position.

He has also denied that there is a two-million minimum buy that the manufacturers of COVAXIN are requesting from Jamaican authorities.

In the meantime, India High Commissioner Masakui Rungsung has touted COVAXIN as safe, even as he acknowledged the position of the Government.

“My prime minister has taken it, my foreign minister has taken it. All my Cabinet ministers have taken this COVAXIN. We are simply saying that if it is safe for my prime minister in India, it should be safe for my people, and if it is safe for 1.3 billion people, it should be safe for people in other countries,” Rungsung told The Gleaner.