PAHO Says Public Health Measures Remain Vital, Wants Increased Vaccine Access

(CMC) — The director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr Carissa Etienne, Wednesday called on the year-old COVID-19 Genomic Surveillance Regional Network to keep “a close eye” on the emergence and spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) throughout the region.

“The network has been instrumental in monitoring the virus’s spread within border regions and among travellers, who are often the first to introduce variants into a country,” the Dominican-born Etienne told reporters during her weekly media briefing.

So far, 47 countries and territories in the Americas, including the Caribbean, have detected at least one “variant of concern” and 11 have detected all four of them — alpha, beta, gamma, and delta.

Dr Etienne told reporters that the network started as a handful of public health labs in 2020, carrying out sequencing for countries without local capacity.

The network has grown to include 24 labs in total, among them four additional reference laboratories including the US-based Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and the St Augustine campus of the University of West Indies (UWI) in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Together, and using science as a common language, countries committed to bolster their laboratory capacity, hire staff, and make surveillance a priority, building on the legacy of our region’s longstanding dengue and influenza surveillance and laboratory networks,” Dr Etienne said.

PAHO supports the network by standardising laboratory protocols, conducting trainings, and donating supplies.

The COVID-19 Genomic Surveillance Regional Network is an example of the power of Pan-Americanism and the importance of working together to control this virus.

“We must bring the same spirit of collaboration and solidarity to other dimensions of our COVID-19 response, especially vaccines,” Dr Etienne said, adding that lack of vaccine access is creating an epidemiological divide.

“More and more, disease trends are showing a region divided by vaccine access. In countries with adequate vaccine supply, infections are decreasing; in places where vaccine coverage is still low, in those countries, infections remain high.”

She said that COVID-19 cases are steadily declining in Costa Rica, where nearly one in three people are vaccinated. South American countries with higher rates of vaccinations, including Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina, are reporting sharp decreases in cases. Cases are decreasing across Canada and most of the United States.

But she said, in Latin America and the Caribbean overall, only 15 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, and some countries, including Honduras and Haiti, have yet to reach one per cent.

In the Caribbean, both COVID-19 cases and deaths are spiking in Cuba, where conditions are especially acute in the province of Matanzas, Dr Etienne said, adding that other smaller islands are also reporting an increase in infections, among them Martinique, which is experiencing a tripling of cases.

“These trends illustrate how COVID-19 remains entrenched within our region, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage,” Dr Etienne said.

She reiterated that public health measures, such as physical distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding crowds — as well as infection control through testing, contact tracing, quarantining, and isolation — remain vital.

In the past week, the Americas reported more than 967,000 new cases and 22,000 deaths, which reflects a slight decline from the week before, PAHO said.