Other options, including cost-sharing doses through the COVAX facility, remain open
Despite surging requirements and other complications of vaccines in India, the government is hopeful of getting the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine for the second dose from the government of India (GoI) as agreed between the two countries.
Media reports in India states it is unlikely to resume its vaccine Maitri program for the neighbourhood given the sudden crunch in the availability of vaccines amidst a surge in Covid-19 cases. But it is certain that Bhutan is not anticipating being short of second doses.
Given that the vaccine requires two doses, administered eight to 10 weeks apart, the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine for the second dose is expected to arrive in the country by mid-May as it is due towards the end of May this year.
To secure the timely arrival of the second dose of vaccines, Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that the foreign secretary and the ambassador of Bhutan to India are in constant touch with the Indian side to purchase the request of a second dose from the Serum Institute of India (SII).
Earlier, GoI has assured Bhutan of its best cooperation to provide the entire vaccine requirement within the timeline.
“Although the coronavirus surge in India is getting worse, we believe their assurance and confidence that we have access to doses,” Lyonpo added. “This is because the first dose is of no use if the second dose is not being administered.”
While it is yet to be known whether the delivery will come at once or in batches, Lyonpo said that the entire eligible folks are expected to be inoculated with a second dose as scheduled. “We still have about one and a half months,” he added.
Given that the requirement is small and the special relations between the two countries, the government hopes that GoI would consider the special request.
Meanwhile, the government is ready to fulfill all requirements, including the signing of the contract agreement, making a full advance payment, and lifting the vaccines from India, if required.
Prime Minister Dasho Dr Lotay Tshering said money is never a problem. “I don’t mean to say we have enough money,” he said, adding His Majesty has clear instruction to the government to spend whatever amount is needed on Covid-19 and vaccine-related procurement.
“We don’t have problems with acquiring the funds, but it’s about the issues related to accessibility,” Lyonchhen said. “The current scenario is that the production capacity is not being able to meet the demand.”
The government has also explored the possibilities and is reaching to other international development partners to purchase the vaccines. However, the confirmation is yet to be received.
In addition, Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said the cabinet has approved to sign the COVAX indemnification agreement following which it was signed by the health minister and then submitted to the Gavi COVAX.
With this, Bhutan is expected to receive the assistance of 108,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines from the COVAX facility along with 5,850 Pfizer vaccines.
Lyonpo also informed that the balance of 50,000 vaccines of the first dose is available. “With this, we have already over 1,50,000 doses in the country for the second dose,” he said, adding the rest is expected from India.
Health Minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo also said that the ministry had submitted all the required documents about the shipment protocol. “As of now, we have received a commitment of 5,000 plus Pfizer vaccine,” she added.
However, Lyonpo said that a definite date of shipment of 108,000 AstraZeneca vaccines commitment has not been confirmed yet. She added during a tripartite meeting among the health ministry, UNICEF, and WHO, the discussion was really about how much they can give right now.
Lyonpo said the government is also pursuing other channels of procurement which is the cost-sharing doses through COVAX. “So this dialogue is already happening and once we have finalized, we will be submitting the document to the cabinet for approval,” said Lyonpo.
COVAX facility assists 108,000 doses and also the cost-sharing doses through COVAX with support for self-financing participants’ vaccine and delivery costs.
While the request to purchase vaccines through the COVAX facility was submitted, Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said it is not certain with increased global demand, and COVAX itself not being able to meet its initial coverage of a minimum of 20 percent of the total population. “Nevertheless, Bhutan has processed its paper works for both options,” said Lyonpo.
Besides, Lyonpo also said that the government had ordered 200,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine after submitting it to His Majesty the King.
“The reason we have done this is mainly to target the age group of 12 to 17 year olds which are not covered by AstraZeneca,” Lyonpo said. “Since we have a large population of young people, we also need to cover that group.”
Lyonpo added this will ensure that a larger population of Bhutan is vaccinated. “It will contribute towards the eventual achievement of herd immunity that is approximate if we can cross 70 percent of the population,” he said.
Additionally, with Johnson & Johnson including AstraZeneca and Moderna doing their test in children, Lyonpo hopes that by the second half of this year, “we should be able to get the result of those studies that may also enable us to look at other vaccines”.
While the government is getting vaccines from SII, the foreign minister said that they are also keeping an eye as the same AstraZeneca vaccine is now being produced in Korea, Thailand, and Australia.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been keeping a close eye on this and asking our more missions to start the channel of communication so that whenever it is produced, and if there are adequate numbers, we can ship from there in the event we are compelled to,” said Lyonpo.