CARPHA anchors the Caribbean’s response to COVID-19

October 28th, 2020


Writer: Kieran Andrew Khan

The Caribbean’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a robust one and the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) continues to play an integral role.   The Agency leads the regional public health response to COVID-19, in keeping with its Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) mandate from CARICOM and recommendations from the COHSOD-Health Working Group on regional co-ordination for response management.  

Established as the single regional public health agency for the Caribbean in 2011, created by integrating the roles of five regional health entities – namely, The Caribbean Environmental Health Institute (CEHI), The Caribbean Epidemiology Centre (CAREC), The Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI), The Caribbean Health Research Council (CHRC) and The Caribbean Regional Drug Testing Laboratory (CRDTL). Its primary roles were to present a united front to new and emerging public health threats, tackle the rising rates of non-communicable diseases in alignment with plans and policies of other global health institutions. Today, it faces a global pandemic that demands global and regional co-operation and co-ordination in order for the region to survive and recover.

CARPHA is managing the response to COVID-19 as a health security issue working closely with CMS and Caribbean, CARICOM, regional and international co-ordinating partners to prepare for and respond to the threat and to prevent further transmission of cases. In this regard, its multifaceted comprehensive response include: regional co-ordination with Heads of Government, agencies, sectors (tourism, health, security, education)  and other stakeholders, production of regional guidelines for CARICOM, including health sector response, safer reopening of borders, repatriation, economic recovery and resuming travel; laboratory testing situation reports;  technical guidelines (on response, testing, sector-specific opening measures), provision of essential supplies to CMS;  resource mobilisation;  research and risk communications

In particular, the CARPHA Medical Microbiology Laboratory (CMML), as the regional reference laboratory, has been successfully delivering results for COVID-19 samples in under 48 hours for its Member States. As of August 2020, the CMML tested more than 13,000 samples for 18 of its 26 Member States.   

“CARPHA continues to adhere to good laboratory practices that produce accurate results. Our testing strategies and cadre of well-trained staff work to ensure that there is no backlog for tests or pending results.  We know that timely reporting of laboratory results is important as it can make a difference to Member States,” said Dr. Gabriel M. Gonzalez-Escobar, Head of Laboratory Services and Networks at CARPHA. This ability to test and discern results has been a key part of managing this century’s most urgent health crisis. To date, the number of samples with more than a 48-hour turnaround from reception at CARPHA to results delivered and pending remain at zero. 

To accommodate as many as 150 tests per day, CARPHA has had to work closely with the international community including the European Union (EU), World Bank (WB), Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and Agence Française de Développement (AFD).    The Agency has a long-standing partnership with the  Regional Security System (RSS), having collaborated to respond to public health emergencies such as hurricanes.  Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the RSS has worked with CARPHA to transport samples for suspected COVID-19 cases from Member States.

In response to the severe impact on tourism, CARPHA’s tourism and health programme formed a novel COVID-19 Tourism Task Force with the regional tourism agencies – the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States Commission (OECSC) and the Global Tourism Resiliency and Crisis Management Centre (GTRCMC) – for a harmonised approach to the COVID-19 response in the tourism sector. A suite of proactive COVID-19 health measures was developed (inclusive of monitoring and response, standards, prevention measures,  training, certification and recognition) to build travellers’ assurance, ensure tourism recovery and resilience and regional health security. Accommodation and other facilities using the proactive measures would display the Caribbean travellers’ health stamp for healthier safer tourism.  

CARPHA has developed safe reopening guidelines for sectors such as health, tourism, education, manufacturing and construction; faith-based organisations, restaurant and bars, visitors to prisons,  domestic workers, sex workers to assist the region in managing and controlling the spread of COVID-19.

CARPHA received key medical supplies on July 15th from the People’s Republic of China, on behalf of CARICOM. “I am elated to accept these medical supplies – 15,000 swab test kits and 30,000 medical face masks on behalf of the Member States,” Dr. Joy St John, CARPHA Executive Director responded. In July 2020, the agency through its Caribbean Regulatory System (CRS), which is a joint venture with the PAHO, issued the first-ever recommendation for a diagnostic test kit for COVID-19 to enter the CARICOM space. The kit is authorised for use on respiratory samples collected from individuals who are suspected of COVID-19 and is the same product granted emergency authorisation by the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) and meets the standard ISO 13485 for medical devices.

CARPHA Member States benefited from a considerable grant from the European Union (EU) which will be used to support a direct response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Caribbean including the purchase of PPEs, test kits, reagents/consumables, as well as vaccines and other treatment when they become available. In the case of the World Bank, significant resources were earmarked for essential laboratory equipment as well as test kits, reagents/consumables to assist in the COVID-19 fight. Funds were also allocated by the World Bank in support of the risk-communications function of the Agency. Substantial funding was also received from the CDC, PAHO and the AFD for funding to the CMML for additional laboratory equipment, test kits, reagents/consumables, and personal protective equipment (PPE), in addition to supporting the Regional Coordinating Mechanism on Health Security. 

The organisation also received a grant in June 2020 from the IDB to promote regional health security through the co-ordination of the regional health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Made available through the IDB Japan Special Fund, the grant is intended to strengthen the region’s resilience in the midst of a global pandemic. “The beneficiary countries will gain from CARPHA’s collective public health epidemiology and disease surveillance and prevention knowledge, convening capacity and project management expertise in coordinating their individual responses to the COVID-19 virus,” said Dr. St John.

While the Caribbean continues to manage infection rates and control the spread of COVID-19, vigilance and co-operation among public and private enterprise and between CARICOM States remains our best chance of emerging from this pandemic with lives and livelihoods intact.   More information about CARPHA and its response to COVID-19 can be found at www.carpha.org.

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