Marshall Islands Correspondent

Under the watchful eye of Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal, standing left, five Marshall Islands leaders were the first to receive the newly arrived Covid vaccine developed by Moderna. (Seated from left) High Court Chief Justice Carl Ingram, Speaker Kenneth Kedi, Chairman Council of Irooj (or chiefs) Iroojlaplap (paramount chief) Kotak Loeak, President of the United Church of Christ Rev. Palukne Johnny, and Health Minister Bruce Bilimon.
Photo by Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — With the Moderna vaccine rollout on Dec. 29, the Marshall Islands became the first independent nation in the region to start COVID vaccinations. Other US-affiliated jurisdictions, including Guam, CNMI and American Samoa launched their vaccine programs earlier in December.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control is providing an initial delivery of the Moderna-developed vaccine to the three freely associated states, which opted for the Moderna brand over Pfizer because of less stringent cold-chain and other logistics issues for handling the Pfizer vaccine.

The Marshall Islands cabinet, Ministry of Health staff, and heads of all government departments and agencies were briefed Christmas week on the imminent arrival of the vaccines. The 1,200 doses in the first delivery means 600 people can be vaccinated in the initial round because each person needs two of the Moderna COVID shots for it to be effective.

Government Chief Secretary Kino Kabua confirmed that CDC is providing 1,200 doses as an initial installment.

Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal emphasized that getting the vaccine is voluntary. The aim is for health staff and other first responders, as well as elderly people who are the most at risk for COVID to be in the first group to be immunized against the virus, said Niedenthal.

CDC has advised the Marshall Islands that it will provide 1,200 and then another 6,000 doses soon after, Niedenthal said. “We could be getting a lot of vaccines over the next couple of months,” he said.

Marshall Islands health officials anticipate that the U.S. government will be providing all the COVID vaccines needed during the next six months. In addition, many other donors have lined up to assist. The Asian Development Bank in mid-December launched a $9 billion vaccine initiative — the Asia Pacific Vaccine Access Facility — offering rapid and equitable support to its developing members as they procure and deliver COVID vaccines. The World Health Organization and the New Caledonia-based Pacific Commission have teamed up to offer a COVAX vaccine to island nations that is expected to roll out later in 2021.

Niedenthal said the Marshall Islands signed up for COVAX plan as a backup option.

“Now, along with COVAX, we’ll have APVAX,” he said. “Soon everyone will be desperate for arms to stick with a needle. The virus should be afraid.”

During the briefings Christmas week, one question that came up was why is Marshall Islands “rushing” to get the vaccine when the country is COVID-free?

“It takes six weeks for the Moderna COVID vaccine to be effective,” Niedenthal said. The second shot is taken 28 days after the first, and then it takes another two weeks to reach its full effectiveness, according to Niedenthal. So it makes sense to move forward with getting the population prepared now, he said.

“I want to emphasize that the reason we are where we are today — COVID-free — is because we have been very proactive about closing our borders, updating our travel advisories, and establishing the protocols at Kwajalein for repatriation,” Niedenthal said. “This (vaccine rollout) is our next step, to get people vaccinated before COVID comes.”

The U.S.-made vaccines are being provided through the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed. mbj