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The government has approached China, as well as Russia, for the Covid vaccine. A letter of interest has been sent to the Chinese ambassador Li Jiming in this regard. In the letter issued by health minister Zahid Maleque, it has been said that the vaccine can serve to strengthen ties and cooperation between the two countries.

Basically, the government took up this move to procure vaccines from China after uncertainty emerged over receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine from India. On Thursday, the foreign ministry announced its consent to join the platform initiated by China to create an emergency stock of vaccines for South Asia. Then on Saturday the home minister issued the letter to the Chinese embassy, expressing interest to procuring the vaccine.

In September last year China has expressed interest in the trial of two vaccines produced in their country. They wanted to provide 500,000 doses as a gift to Bangladesh. But Bangladesh delayed in taking any decision about a trial of the Chinese vaccines. In the meantime the AstraZeneca vaccine began to arrive from India. Other than the vaccines being purchased, India also gave Bangladesh a gift of 3.3 million doses of the vaccine.

The present stock of vaccines will last for around 15 more days, creating a challenge to administer the second doses
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After India shut down exports of the vaccine in order to meet its own burgeoning demands, Bangladesh has began discussions about bringing the vaccines from the US, Russia and China. Bangladesh has even approached the international alliance Gavi for the vaccine. In a letter sent on Friday to the CEO of Gavi, Seth Berkley, the health minister officially appealed for funds to procure 100 million (10 crore) doses of the vaccine through COVAX, the global initiative for equitable access to the vaccines. He said that Bangladesh is willing to purchase more vaccines, other of the ones funded by donors which GAVI will provide for free.

The health ministry sent a letter to COVAX on the same day, stating that the 100.9 million (10 crore 9 lakh) vaccines allocated for Bangladesh under the COVAX initiative was supposed to start arriving from March, but had been delayed. It was hoped that the supply would start from May. However, Bangladesh has not received any assurance. The letter gave an update of the vaccination drive in the country, saying that so far 5.7 million (57 lakh) people had been given the first dose and 1.9 million (19 lakh) had received the second dose. The present stock of vaccines will last for around 15 more days, creating a challenge to administer the second doses. The letter appealed to COVAX for 500,000 to 1 million doses of the vaccine to tackle the crisis.

Director general of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) Abul Bashar Mohammad Khurshid Alam, told Prothom Alo on Sunday night, “COVAX wanted to know how many vaccines we needed. We informed them accordingly.” He said that 100,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, under the COVAX initiative, would arrive in the first week of May.

Chinese firm can supply vaccine

In the health ministry’s ‘non-binding letter of interest’ to the Chinese embassy in Dhaka, the Chinese government was thanked regarding the gift of 500,000 vaccines. Interest was expressed in procuring vaccines, and it was added that certain documentation was required in accordance to the drug administration directorate’s rules.

Meanwhile, China’s Sinopharm representative, China Urban Construction Investment (Beijing) Medical Technology Company on Wednesday sent a letter to the health ministry. The letter stated that they came to know through the Bangladesh Private Clinic and Diagnostic Owner’s Association (BPCDOA) that Bangladesh required a huge amount of vaccines. They told BPCDOA that it is possible to supply 1.5 million Sinopharm vaccines from China every week. They were capable to supplying from 36 million (3 crore 60 lakh) to 48 million (4 crore 80 lakh) vaccines.

The letter also said that they confirmed that they would be able to supply a huge amount of the vaccines.

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China firms want permission

The two Chinese firms in Bangladesh that sought permission are Sinovac and Anui Gefei. Discussions in this regard started before last September, but were stalled for quite some time.

Progress was then made through joint testing with Sinovac and the International Center for Diarrhea Research Bangladesh (icddr,b). Then in October last year, Sinovac said it has funding problems for the test and sought funds from icddr.b. The test initiative then fell through.

China’s Anui Jifei Langcom Biopharmaceutical Company Limited proposed to set up a factory for testing, research and manufacture of the vaccine. The government was in a dilemma over whether or not to accept their proposal. In a letter to Bangladesh’s cabinet secretary on 19 April, Anui Gifei said they had sought permission for the third phase of the test in Bangladesh in October 2020. Arrangements had been made but ultimately this did not materialise. Now instead of the third stage test, they want permission for emergency use of the vaccine.

The drug administration directorate replied to Anui Gifei’s letter the very next day. They said they needed to know if they had registration in seven countries. Bangladesh can give approval for the use of vaccines if these have approval of the US, Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Switzerland and Japan. Bangladesh recognises their standards.

The Chinese embassy has earlier wanted to give 500,000 (5 lakh vaccines) to Bangladesh, but it took time to decide. China’s condition was that 30,000 doses of the vaccine be administered to the Chinese nationals in Bangladesh.

Former WHO consultant of the South Asian region, Mujaherul Haque, told Prothom Alo that when China expressed interest in research, that should have been accepted. It could then have been understood how effective this vaccine would be in the country. Also, with their support, vaccines could have been manufactured in the country. He said, “We lost that chance. The move to procure vaccines just from one source was a serious blunder.”

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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