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COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout in Georgia: Waiting for Godot?

A number of virus-ravaged nations across the world have already started to roll out the COVID-19 vaccination. Many governments have encountered serious difficulties in managing the process. Despite the government’s promises, Georgians, living through the second lockdown, are left guessing as to when exactly the first jabs could be administered.

What Is the Plan?

Georgian health officials reported on January 15 they have agreed on a detailed vaccination plan following a-month-and-a-half-long consultations. These involved both relevant national and local agencies and the relevant international organizations. The government will need about 10 days to pass the formal procedures and give its final approval, Deputy Health Minister Tamar Gabunia explained.

Amiran Gamkrelidze, Head of the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC), says the plan covers eight key elements, such as target groups and coverage, four main scenarios of distribution depending on available vaccines, side effect management, communication with the public, etc.

The authorities plan to start the vaccination in the first quarter of the year and gradually cover 60% of the Georgian population.  Persons under 18 won’t be vaccinated, since there are no clinical trial results available on this age group yet, Gamkrelidze explained.

According to the NCDC head, to retrieve the degree of normalcy, at least 60% of the population needs to be immunized – through prior infection and vaccination, which should make COVID-19 manageable, especially since the antiviral medications may eventually appear on the market. Doctor Gamkrelidze argues it is still to meet that target during 2021, but it would be a tall order.

As elsewhere, the population’s skepticism towards the new vaccines is one of the challenges to address. NCDC Head referred to the latest survey data and said 50 to 60% of Georgians wish to be vaccinated.

Once the vaccine is available, the frontline medical workers and nursing home residents will be the first to get the jabs, followed by seniors over 75 years of age. People over 65 will be coming next, followed by persons over 55 with chronic illnesses, Gamkrelidze noted. Deputy Health Minister Gabunia estimates that the “risk groups” will be vaccinated within the first two quarters of the year.

The medical staff is prioritized to keep them operational during the public health crisis, Health Minister Tikaradze explained. The immunization of medical workers also increases the public trust in vaccination, she argues.

In the meantime, more and newer vaccines should also become available, Deputy Minister Gabunia thinks. NCDC Deputy Head Paata Imnadze still estimates that the persons not belonging to any of the pre-defined risk groups will not be getting their jabs until “somewhere in summer or early autumn.”

Pfizer/BioNTech Expected to Arrive First

According to Dr. Gamkrelidze, the Georgian authorities reached out to Covax back in August 2020 and have already paid part of the fee through the preferential mechanism, enabling the country to choose among the vaccines available on the platform.

Health Minister Tikaradze, has been confidently stressing from the outset, that Georgia is set to receive “in the nearest future” the first portion of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines from Covax –  one of the pillars of the international platform launched by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission and France to provide global accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines.

Subsequently, it became apparent that the optimism was based on the questionnaire requested by the Covax platform, inquiring about the willingness and logistical readiness to receive the respective vaccines, rather than any specific agreement about vaccine shipments.

Deputy Health Minister Gabunia said on January 18  that the response to the questionnaire has already been submitted, will be reviewed by the end of January. About 20,000 doses are expected to arrive in the first batch, and the subsequent supply will be depending on the speed of vaccinations,  she noted.

According to the NCDC, Georgia will be guaranteed 1,4 mln doses of two-dose-shot vaccine, sufficient to cover 20% of the country’s population (700,000 persons). The international platform will not disburse further doses unless all applicant countries have received doses for one-fifth of their citizens, he added.

What Are the Other Options?

Aside from Pfizer/BioNTech shots, health authorities say other manufacturers may also be approached. Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine expected to become accessible to Georgian citizens via the Covax platform as well. Should it become available through separate, bilateral channels, Gabunia says the first Oxford/AstraZeneca doses may be delivered not earlier than the second quarter of 2021.

Dr. Gamkrelidze said bilateral talks were ongoing with all important manufacturers and international organizations, headed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Georgia’s local embassies. The European Union is also actively engaging within the scope of its Neighborhood Policy to assist Georgia to get additional doses outside the portion foreseen by Covax, he added.

Some key figures, like the country’s top epidemiologist Tengiz Tsertsvadze, were doubtful whether Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna (U.S.) vaccines were the right choices for Geogia.  In his controversial remarks, Tsertsvadze said the two vaccines were less suitable since they require refrigeration and very low temperatures which might not be readily available. Dr. Tsertsvadze favors the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, which is easy to keep and administer.

Controversially, Tsertsvadze claimed that one of the Chinese vaccines, ostensibly by Sinovac, was also considered an that it was “enjoying high levels of confidence”.

Other officials quickly debunked Tsertsvadze’s statements. Deputy NCDC Head Imnadze said Georgia possessed several low-temperature refrigerators across the country, making it immediately possible to import up to 200,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine which must be stored at -70 degrees Celsius,

While Imnadze allowed for the possibility of importing the Sinovac vaccine, should they be approved by competent international regulatory authorities, the Health Minister Tikaradze denied discussions on purchasing the Chinese vaccine.

The Minister asserted that the Georgian authorities were not considering vaccine by Sinovac, since they have not been backed by sufficient research and data.

Anticipating the Third Wave

The importance of timely vaccine rollout grows as health officials have been recently talking about the “third wave” of the pandemic. In one of her latest press briefings, Minister Ekaterine Tikaradze predicted the onset of the third wave as early as in the second half of February.

The announcement comes as Georgia has barely overcome the “second wave” – which has peaked in the past months, with daily cases surpassing 5,000 early in December. The numbers then brought the country reportedly at the top of the global rankings of virus spread per population.

The anticipation of the third wave and persisting uncertainty surrounding the vaccines may not calm Georgians, whose physical and mental health, as well as economic conditions, have suffered a major blow due to the pandemic and related restrictions.

As of January 18, Georgia has confirmed 247,915 cases of the novel coronavirus, of which 234,636 patients recovered and 2,958 died. The number of active cases to date stands at 10,295.



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