Delivery of 2.3cr Doses of Vaccine: Serum silent yet Dhaka ‘hopeful’
The Covid-19 situation has improved remarkably in India but there is no sign yet from the neighbouring country of resuming supply of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine Covishield, abruptly held up for own use.
Serum Institute, the vaccine manufacturer in India, has remained tight-lipped despite repeated communications from the Bangladesh government for the doses it paid for.
Serum Institute has not sent a single dose after February, putting the country's vaccination campaign in jeopardy, and more pressingly leaving around 15 lakh people -- waiting for the second doses -- in limbo.
It has supplied 70 lakh doses of Covishield in two instalments from the three crore doses Dhaka procured. According to the contract, Serum was supposed to send 50 lakh doses each month between January and June.
Bangladesh's inoculation drive, which began on February 7 and revolved mainly around Serum's supply, came to a grinding halt after New Delhi suspended vaccine exports in the last week of April due to a massive surge of Covid-19 infections in India.
In terms of coronavirus cases, India is one of the worst-hit countries in the world with the pandemic claiming 4,01,050 lives and 30,502,362 people getting infected there.
However, as the situation in India has improved significantly over the past few weeks due to massive vaccination, with the daily positivity rate coming down to 2.34 percent, health officials in Bangladesh hope the embargo on vaccine exports will be removed soon.
The latest update shows the Covid-19 recovery rate in India went up to 97.06 percent.
"As the situation is improving in India, we hope that we will get our procured vaccines soon. We are communicating with the Serum Institute and are hopeful about getting a good amount of vaccine doses in August," Health Minister Zahid Maleque told The Daily Star on Saturday.
"We expect that Serum will give us at least 15 lakh doses of the Oxford vaccine immediately to inoculate those waiting for their second dose," the minister added.
Nazmul Hassan Papon, managing director of Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd, the local dealer of Serum, said they were in touch with the Indian company but are yet to get any date of vaccine arrival.
"The Covid-19 situation in India has improved. India should allow vaccine exports," he said, without elaborating further.
In the meantime, Bangladesh has been bearing the brunt of the Delta variant of Covid. Currently, the daily positivity rate in the country is around 30 percent, which was below five percent in April.
Bangladesh recorded 164 deaths on Monday, the highest single-day casualty since Covid-19 cases were first detected in March last year.
The country suspended administration of the first doses on April 26, immediately after the Indian government barred exports of Covishield. Less than three percent of the 163 million population have been inoculated so far.
The government resumed inoculation of first doses on a limited scale this month with Sinopharm and Pfizer vaccines.
But the administration of the second Covishield jabs of around 15 lakh people hangs in the balance due to no supply from Serum, the largest vaccine producer in the world.
India halted vaccine exports after donating or selling more than 66 million doses. The move has left countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and many in Africa scrambling for alternate supplies, Reuters reported on May 19.
The suspension also affected Covax, a global initiative coordinated by the World Health Organisation, Vaccine Alliance Gavi, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. It was formed to ensure that low and middle-income countries have equitable access to Covid vaccines.
Under this, Bangladesh was supposed to get 6.8 crore vaccine doses this year. This could have covered around 20 percent of the population. But the country has received 1.06 lakh doses of Pfizer and 25 lakh doses of Moderna from Covax so far.
Covax also failed to keep its promise, made on March 2, of delivering 1.09 crore doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine by May. "This supply was disrupted as Serum has suspended vaccine exports," said a health official, requesting not to be named.
Talking to this correspondent again yesterday, Health Minister Zahid Maleque said one million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is likely to arrive in the country either at the end of this month or the beginning of the next month under Covax.
"We urged Covax that we have a deficit of 15 lakh doses of the Oxford vaccine and we wrote to them several times. In response, Covax has informed us that they will give us 10 lakh doses of the Oxford vaccine," he said.
Serum delivered the first 50 lakh doses in January but shipped only 20 lakh the following month. Besides, the Indian government sent 33 lakh doses as a gift to Bangladesh.
After the Serum snub, the Bangladesh government wrote to AstraZeneca in April requesting the company to authorise production of its Covid-19 vaccine in Bangladesh.
A proposal was sent to AstraZeneca seeking its technology to manufacture the vaccine or import and repackage it.
But the government has yet to get a response from the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical company.
Contacted, Prof Be-Nazir Ahmed, a member of National Immunisation Technical Advisory Group, said they opined for administering Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to people waiting for the second shots.
"Based on evidence and studies we found, we did not recommend a vaccine mixture," he said, adding that though it was delayed, the first shot would give some sort of protection.
"If the gap is around six months, a small group of first dose recipients can be tested to see the antibody level and if it is not satisfactory, then a booster dose can be given after administering the second dose," he said about mixing vaccines.
Recently, Germany has recommended that all people who got the first shots of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine switch to a different type of vaccine for their second shot.
It was aimed at increasing the speed and effectiveness of vaccinations as the more contagious Delta variant spreads, according to media reports.
Researchers have said mixing vaccines is likely safe and effective but they are still gathering data to be sure.