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Kingdom of Tonga receives 24,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX facility

The Kingdom of Tonga became the third country in the Pacific islands to receive COVID-19 vaccine doses shipped via the COVAX Facility, a partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF and WHO. This is a historic step towards achieving the goal to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally, in what will be part of the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history.

The 31 March, 2021 arrival in Nuku’alofa of 24,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine marks the third batch of vaccines to arrive in the Pacific region through the COVAX Facility in the global partnership’s effort to deliver at least two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2021.

The Prime Minister Hon Dr Pohiva Tu'i'onetoa,the Minister for Health Hon Dr 'Amelia Tu'i'pulotu, Ministry of Health CEO Dr Reynold 'Ofanoa, Officer in Charge of the WHO Country Liaison Office Dr Yutaro Setoya, development partners including the British High Commissioner, the New Zealand High Commissioner, the Japanese Ambassador, representatives from the US and Australia received the vaccines at the Fua'amotu International Airport.

This was made possible through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility. COVAX is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi and the World Health Organization (WHO), alongside key delivery partner, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The facility offers a reliable supply of safe and efficient vaccines especially for Pacific countries like Tonga, who do not have direct access to manufacturers.

Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccination Alliance, emphasized that “COVAX's mission is to help end the acute phase of the pandemic as soon as possible, allowing global equitable access to vaccines against COVID-19.”

“We thank the Government of the Kingdom of Tonga for its continued public health leadership through this global pandemic,” said UNICEF Pacific Representative, Sheldon Yett. “We will continue to work, through the COVAX facility, with the government and other partners, to support vaccination efforts and other essential public health measures necessary to keep the virus at bay.”

Dr Yutaro Setoya, Officer in Charge of the WHO Country Liaison Office for the Kingdom of Tonga said: “Even though Tonga has no COVID-19 cases, the closure of the borders has intense impact on people’s health, rights to nutrition, mental health…and the vaccination is a part of a larger strategy to strengthen health systems in the Kingdom of Tonga for the longer term. The COVID-19 vaccines are proven to protect people from severe disease and death. Used together with public health measures such as physical distancing and washing hands frequently, will help mitigate the effects of the pandemic by reducing deaths and severe disease. This means the Kingdom of Tonga can look at opening up gradually and the economic revival of the country.

The Health Minister also confirmed that the rollout will take place on Thursday 15 April 2021. The rollout will be implemented according to priority groups as has been the practice, globally. This is due to limited vaccines available worldwide. The Ministry intends to first vaccinate frontline workers including staff from the Health Ministry, Tonga Police, His Majesty’s Armed Forces, Tonga Fire and Emergency Services, ports and airport staff. Frontliners work daily to ensure that Tonga is safe from COVID-19 and they must be well protected first.

A National Technical Working Group (TWG) has been established to manage all aspects of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. The Group is working closely with WHO and UNICEF to support health workers and all stakeholders involved in the rollout. This includes capacity building for frontline workers, coordinating resources for safe storage and vaccination capacity and providing timely information and knowledge to the public about the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Kingdom of Tonga is not new to immunization and in the past the Ministry has had great success with vaccine rollout due to communities cooperating well. It is anticipated that this rollout will be no different as the Ministry continues to work together with the public at for the national rollout.

The Ministry of Health acknowledges the support from the WHO, the New Zealand and Australian governments, Japan, and partners including the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank and European Union, in obtaining safe and efficient vaccines to protect the people of the Kingdom of Tonga from COVID-19.

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