PARIS (Reuters) – France’s Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte will store its first vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at a secret and secure location when they arrive on Sunday to deter would-be thieves, the local health authority chief said.
A military plane will deliver the initial 975 doses to France’s poorest territory as concerns grow about a new variant of COVID-19 detected in nearby South Africa and almost a month after the first shots were given in metropolitan France.
The strenuous efforts to safeguard the vaccine in Mayotte, located between Mozambique and Madagascar, come after surgical face masks were stolen from the island’s main hospital last spring and sold in the neighbouring Comoros archipelago.
“The Foreign Legion will take the vials to an undisclosed location,” Dominique Voynet, head of the local heath authority, told Reuters. Voynet and the army said the police would then be responsible for protecting the vials.
Paris will also provide a super freezer but it will not be ready for use for several days. The Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at very low temperatures.
Voynet said Mayotte had not been considered a high priority to receive the vaccine because its population was young and there were very few coronavirus patients in the island’s only intensive care unit (ICU).
There was more of an imperative now, she said, after four cases of the South African variant had been confirmed in Mayotte and the number in the ICU had started rising.
Official statistics showed the rate of excess mortality jumped 24% in 2020, higher than any other region in France.
At least one opposition lawmaker said the distribution was coming too late and accused the government of an unequal rollout of the vaccine.
A spokesman for the health ministry declined to comment and referred questions to the ministry’s DGS office. The DGS did not respond to emailed questions.
The lawmaker, Mansour Kamardine of the centre-right Les Republicains party, said the initial plan had been for the vaccine to be stored in Reunion, some 1,700 kilometres (1,056 miles) away.
“We have to beg each time just to get crumbs,” the lawmaker said.
Reporting by Tangi Salaun; writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Gareth Jones
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