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Bangladesh has few alternatives to quick access to COVID-19 vaccine as a confusion surfaces over getting the vaccine from the Serum Institute of India on time on the one hand and there is no possibility to get the vaccine before June from the global vaccine collection and distribution initiative COVAX on the other, health experts have said.

Officials also hint the country will need to wait until June if Bangladesh does not get the vaccine from the Serum.

Uncertainly and worry arose due to lack of efforts from the government to purchase or collect vaccine from other alternative sources.

However, the health minister and the health ministry officials repeatedly said initiatives would be taken to purchase vaccine from all possible sources. But in reality, no official agreement has been signed with any other country or organisation except holding primary talks.

Vaccines developed by Pfizer-BoiNTech and Moderna have already been approved. Several countries including Russia and China have been using it. At least, 30 countries are applying the vaccines developed by different companies. Several countries are even using more than one vaccine.

Several others may use new vaccines in a couple of months. What the government has been doing to collect vaccine from these sources, nobody is clarifying the matter.

Confusion and uncertainty have arisen over the remarks of Serum Institute chief executive officer Adar Poonawalla for the past three days. But he twitted on Tuesday that exports of vaccines are permitted to all countries.

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The government could negotiate with more than one sources instead of depending on a lone source. If an initiative was taken to run trial through a negotiation with Chinese company SinoVac, Bangladesh would get another alternative. Vaccine diplomacy should have strengthened more. Besides, the government should give special attention to bring vaccine from the COVAX within the shortest possible time.
Public health expert Abu Jamil Faysal

A confusion also surfaced over Poonawalla’s remarks on not providing vaccine commercially to other countries unless the demand in India is met. News agency Reuters, quoting an interview with Poonawalla, reported the Serum would meet the demand of vaccine in India for the next two months. The export of vaccines may be possible only after supplying 100 million (10 crore) doses initially.

The Serum Institute of India has been manufacturing vaccine developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca. The government of Bangladesh is purchasing vaccine from the Serum Institute. Beximco Pharmaceuticals is the local supplier. The health ministry, the Beximco Pharmaceuticals and the Serum Institute signed a tripartite agreement on it.

There was a debate at the health ministry’s press conference on Monday whether the agreement is signed between the governments of two countries or it is a commercial one.

At that time, Health Service Division secretary Abdul Manan said, it’s a government-to-government agreement. On the other, Beximco Pharmaceuticals managing director Nazmul Hasan said, it’s a commercial deal.

However, the government did not make any statement over the matter till now. According to the agreement among the health ministry, the Beximco Pharmaceuticals, and the Serum Institute, Bangladesh and India will receive the vaccine simultaneously. The Serum will provide the vaccine to Bangladesh within a month the country approves it.

The first batch will contain 5 million (50 lakh) doses, followed by a batch of 5 million doses a month to make a total of 30 million (3 crore) in phases. Beximco Pharmaceuticals will supply the vaccine at the district level across the country. A top official of Directorate General of Health Services said, Beximco, in fact, is the distributor of the vaccine.

Beximco managing director Nazmul Alam told Prothom Alo on Tuesday, “We have booked the Serum’s vaccine first. So, we will receive it. We can bring the vaccine whenever the government wants after completing the formalities. Nothing happens to be worried.”

COVAX initiative

Alongside Serum, COVAX initiative is another alternative for the government. But, there is a less possibility to access to the COVAX vaccine in the next six months.

Companies working on vaccine in the developed and the developing countries, UNICEF, World Banks and several other institutions undertake the global ‘COVAX’ initiative to collect and distribute the COVID-19 vaccine.

CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), GAVI (the Vaccine Alliance) and World Bank are leading the initiative jointly.

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World Bank said, 190 countries joined the initiative. Some 92 low and middle income countries will receive at least 1.3 billion (130 crore) vaccine doses by the first half of 2021 under the COVAX initiative. Some 20 per cent population of these countries will be immunised.

DGHS director general professor Abul Bashar Mohammad Khurshid Alam told Prothom Alo on Tuesday that necessary requirements had been fulfilled to receive vaccine from COVAX. It will arrive by mid-June. Besides, efforts are on to purchase other vaccines.

He said, “Several vaccines are likely to get approval in the next couple of months. Adequate allocation has been made to purchase vaccine. So, there is no reason to become worried over the access to vaccine.”

Government high-ups have been saying that efforts are underway to avail vaccine from all possible sources. Earlier, talks were held over purchasing vaccine developed by Russia. Media reported Russia-developed vaccine Sputnik-5 would cost $5 a dose.

Health minister Zahid Maleque told several programmes that they would try to purchase vaccine from any possible country inducing China, Russia, UK, USA and India.

However, efforts are not clear yet. Public health experts said, the government should have looked for more alternatives.

Public health expert Abu Jamil Faysal told Prothom Alo that the government could negotiate with more than one sources instead of depending on a lone source. If an initiative was taken to run trial through a negotiation with Chinese company SinoVac, Bangladesh would get another alternative.

Vaccine diplomacy should have strengthened more. Besides, the government should give special attention to bring vaccine from the COVAX within the shortest possible time.