Vaccines Under Covax: Helping homeland in hour of need

4 US citizens of Bangladesh origin worked behind the scene to ensure vaccines available at the earliest

When Bangladesh was struggling to get Covid-19 vaccines amid surging infections and deaths, the arrival of 26 lakh vaccine doses over the last one month under the Covax facility offered it a ray of hope.

And from behind the scene, four US citizens of Bangladeshi origin played a pivotal role in expediting the process of bringing the vaccines to the country, boosting the government's inoculation campaign that came to a grinding halt after India suspended vaccine export.

The four are: cardiologists Prof Dr Choudhury Hafiz Ahsan and Prof Dr Masudul Hassan, nephrologist Prof Dr Ziauddin Ahmed Sadek and former senior UN official Mahmud ush Sams Choudhury.

They were assisted in various ways by several others, including Dr Arifur Rahman in Canada and prominent physician Prof ABM Abdullah and Prof Ahmedul Kabir in Bangladesh.

It was their restless efforts that paved the way for Bangladesh getting the free Covid jabs shared by the US government through the Covax facility, a worldwide initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. Bangladesh will only have to pay the transportation cost for the vaccines.

Meanwhile, the second consignment of 30 lakh shots of Moderna Covid-19 vaccine arrived last night.

One of the team members, Prof Masudul Hassan, shared with The Daily Star what prompted them to take the initiative and the challenges that came along.

"We fought for Bangladesh's independence and we must play our part in its critical hour. Our initiative is a part of the obligations we have as freedom fighters," he said over the phone.

Asked how the initiative began, Prof Masudul said Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen called him around three months ago, seeking help to get vaccines. "He [foreign minister] said they had contacted the US administration to get 70 lakh doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, but to no avail. He asked whether we, as Bangladeshi-Americans, could do anything about the vaccine issue."

Covax is an international cooperative programme formed to make sure low- and middle-income countries have fair access to Covid-19 vaccines. Covax is led by the United Nation's World Health Organization; Gavi, a vaccine alliance; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations or CEPI.

Prof Masudul said they have been working under the leadership of Prof Choudhury Hafiz Ahsan ever since Bangladesh started facing a crisis of vaccines.

"The main challenge to get the vaccine was to join the vaccine distribution team of the [US president] Biden administration. It was very difficult for us. Vice President Kamala Harris helped Prof Hafiz join there. Prof Hafiz made every effort to include Bangladesh's name in the list of countries to get the vaccines. Finally, Bangladesh's name was included in the list of 18 countries," he said.

More than 180 countries are members of the Covax facility and the US selected only 18 countries for sending the vaccines for free.

Prof Masudul said a discussion on Bangladesh procuring vaccines from the United States was also going on. "When we showed interest in purchasing vaccines, the Biden administration informed us that there was no need to buy the vaccine as 25 lakh doses will be provided through the Covax free of cost. Bangladesh will continue to get the vaccine in phases," he said.

At that time, the US administration wanted to give 10 lakh shots of Oxford-AstraZeneca's vaccine. But that did not happen because the jabs expired and thereby were destroyed, he added.

This time, he said, only two out of 18 countries have received the vaccines. Bangladesh received 30 lakh doses and Ukraine got 10 lakh.

Asked about the number of vaccine doses Bangladesh would get from the US through the Covax facility, Prof Masudul said, "In the vaccine application, there was no mention of the number of jabs the country will get. Since we are the members of the vaccine distribution team, Bangladesh will get as many vaccines as provided by the US under Covax."

Replying to a question, he said, "The vaccines Bangladesh is getting are being given for free. We have all the information and evidence in this regard."

Expressing concern over the deteriorating Covid situation in Bangladesh, Prof Masudul said they had taken some more short- and long-term initiatives to help the Bangladeshi people.

"Initiatives have already been taken to send 400 ventilators to Bangladesh. The Vaccine Distribution Committee received 1,000 ventilators from the US. Of those, Bangladesh is to get 400 and India the rest," he said.

He informed this daily that 150 ventilators have already reached the Birdem Hospital in Dhaka. The remaining 250 are now at the Delhi Airport and Bangladesh will collect those in a couple of days.

"Although the price of each ventilator is $15,000, we are getting it for free. The Bangladesh government will have to bear only $100 for each in transportation costs," he added.

Speaking on the long-term initiatives, Prof Masudul said they would work for the production of vaccines in Bangladesh. "We have come a long way in vaccine production."

He hoped that a Bangladeshi company in a joint venture with a European company would be able to start vaccine production in the country by the end of this year.

Ghana became the first country in the world to receive vaccines under the Covax facility in February. Since then, Covax has distributed more than 81 million doses in more than 120 countries around the world, including in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia and Fiji.

The US will provide 500 million doses of Pfizer as a grant. According to the list of vaccine recipient countries published by Covax early this year, Bangladesh was supposed to get 1.27 crore doses of Covid-19 vaccine by the end of June. But the vaccine supply hit a snag after India suspended exporting vaccines produced by Serum Institute of India, which was the highest supplier of the vaccines to the Covax facility.

As a result, Covax had to make major changes in its overall vaccination plan around the world.


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