Bangladesh remains uncertain about when it will receive the next consignment of Covid vaccines from India as per agreement. A note verbale issued on Saturday by India in response to Bangladesh’s queries in this regard, has failed to clear up the issue. In fact, according to diplomatic sources of Dhaka and Delhi, India has indicated that it will not be exporting the vaccine to Bangladesh anytime soon.
Confirming the contents of the note verbale, the foreign ministry’s secretary (East), Mashfi Binte Shams, on Saturday evening told Prothom Alo that Bangladesh had sent a letter to India last week regarding the next consignment of the Serum vaccine. India replied to the letter yesterday, Saturday. The reply indicated that India would not be exporting the vaccine for the time being.
A tripartite agreement was signed between Bangladesh, India’s Serum Institute and Beximco Pharma in November last year to procure the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. Till February, India supplied seven million (70 lakh) of the 30 million (3 crore) vaccine doses to be provided under the agreement. No further consignments were sent since then, even though five million (50 lakh) doses were to be provided every month. The vaccine distributors in Bangladesh, Beximco Pharma, sent a letter in this regard to the government on 18 April, asking that all out efforts be made to urge India to provide the vaccine. The next day, 19 April, the government issued a letter to India, urging for the vaccine to be provided on time.
Managing director of Beximco Pharmaceuticals, Nazmul Hassan alias Papon, expressed his annoyance at Serum Institute’s failure to supply the vaccines despite advance payment. After taking the second dose of the Covid vaccine at Kurmitola General Hospital on Saturday, he told newspersons that advance payment has been made to Serum Institute for 15 million (1.5 crore) doses of the vaccine, but only seven million (70 lakh) had been provided so far. Another eight million (80 lakh) was pending. He said the government should insist on the supply of the vaccines. Serum had no right to withhold the vaccines.
Serum Institute was paid in advance for the vaccine under the agreement signed with Bangladesh. This is a binding business agreement. Strong diplomatic efforts must be made to get the vaccine from India.
According to diplomatic sources in Delhi, India has been trying to meet its internal demand as well as obligations made under contractual agreements by Indian companies to produce more of the vaccines being manufactured at the Serum Institute of India, Pune and by other prominent vaccines manufacturers. However, important key countries of the world have been withholding raw materials, critical for the manufacture of these vaccines. Unless these restrictions on raw materials are lifted, it will be difficult for India to meet the demand and for the vaccine manufacturing companies to export the vaccine in accordance to contractual agreements.
The note verbale issued by India mentioned that since late last year, India and Bangladesh have been working to bring to the people of Bangladesh safe and easily available vaccines.
Moreover, icddr,b and Bharat Biotech entered into an agreement in December 2020 for the Phase-III clinical trials of the COVAXIN, but the actual trials are still awaiting approval. COVAXIN has shown efficacy of over 80 per cent, comparable to that of Oxford AstraZeneca COVISHIELD.
If the co-production of COVAXIN, as offered by India, had begun in Bangladesh using our immense scaling up capacity and presence of multiple manufacturers, "Made in Bangladesh" vaccines would be administered in our country and to friendly countries as well. But that opportunity is still not lost, provided that we make the best use of it, the note verbale said.
A senior official of the foreign ministry, on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo that Bangladesh was making an effort to procure the remaining vaccines to be provided under the tripartite agreement. He said that the issue pertaining to Biotech and icddr,b, as mentioned in the note verbale, could be taken up and decided upon by the health ministry and relevant experts.
Bangladesh has been in official and unofficial communication with India since the last week of last month regarding the remaining doses of the vaccine to be provided by Serum Institute. The foreign secretaries of the two countries have discussed the matter. However, there is still no sign of when Bangladesh will be receiving the next consignment of the vaccines.
The vaccination programme in Bangladesh began on 7 February. Till Saturday, 79,54,000 doses had been administered in total, taking both the first dose and the second dose into account. The arrival of the vaccine from India has become uncertain at a time when over 5.7 million (57 lakh) people in Bangladesh have been given the first dose. The Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) does not have an adequate stock of vaccines to provide all of them with the second dose. There are around 23,45,000 doses in stock. This has pitched the country’s vaccination drive into uncertainty.
Speaking to Prothom Alo on Saturday night, former director of disease control at DGHS, Be-Nazir Ahmed, said, "Serum Institute was paid in advance for the vaccine under the agreement signed with Bangladesh. This is a binding business agreement. Strong diplomatic efforts must be made to get the vaccine from India."
* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir