Vials of AstraZeneca vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are pictured in Huelva, Spain on 24 March 2021
Vials of AstraZeneca vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are pictured in Huelva, Spain on 24 March 2021Reuters

Bangladesh is not receiving the Covid-19 vaccines in time from India in accordance with the agreement. Despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts, the matter of receiving the vaccines from India is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. As a result, the second dose of the vaccine has become uncertain for many of those who have taken the first dose. Public health experts say that this uncertainty has arisen as a result of depending too much on India for the vaccine rather than looking into alternative sources.

Till Wednesday, the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) had just over 27,22,000 (27 lakh 22 thousand) vaccines in stock. Around 150,000 to 200,000 vaccines are being administered every day. If this rate of vaccination continues, the stock of vaccines will exhaust very soon. If the next consignment doesn’t come any time soon, many of those who have taken the first dose, will not receive the second shot.

Under a tripartite agreement, till February Serum has provided Bangladesh with seven million (70 lakh) of the total 30 million (3 crore) doses. Bangladesh has not received any consignment of the vaccines after that, though three million (30 lakh) vaccines were supposed to be sent per month. Beximco Pharma, the distributors of the vaccine in Bangladesh, issued a letter on Sunday, asking the government to firmly approach the Indian government for the vaccine.

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Contacting the foreign ministry as well as Bangladesh’s high commission in Delhi on Wednesday, it was learnt that Bangladesh was keeping up official and unofficial communications with India to procure the remaining 23 million (2 crore 30 lakh) vaccines. But given the surge of coronavirus cases in India at present, it is uncertain how many of the vaccines Bangladesh will actually receive within the next one or one and a half months.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on the matter, foreign secretary Masud Bin Momen said, “We are making efforts to procure the remaining vaccines in accordance to the agreement signed with India’s Serum Institute. In addition, we are also making an effort to procure vaccines from China and Russia under a commercial agreement or joint production. Bangladesh’s diplomatic missions in China and Russia are in communication with the governments of those countries as well as the vaccine manufacturing companies there.”

Diplomacy and economy have overridden science here. From the very outset we had advised to remain on the path of science. The government did not take the advice. Had they taken the advice, the present situation would not have emerged
Md Sayedur Rahman, chairman of the pharmacology department, BSMMU

He said the government is also contacting countries other than China and Russia too, regarding the vaccine.

Diplomacy analysts and public health experts have told this correspondent that from the very beginning, Bangladesh had been solely dependent for the vaccines on India’s Serum Institute. There had been scope to look into the vaccines manufactured in China and Russia. Bangladesh did not show any interest in those two alternatives.

Chairman of the pharmacology department of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, Md Sayedur Rahman, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, “Diplomacy and economy have overridden science here. From the very outset we had advised to remain on the path of science. The government did not take the advice. Had they taken the advice, the present situation would not have emerged.”

Serum not stepping up production before July

According to Dhaka and Delhi diplomatic sources, the Indian government wants to ensure that 250 million (25 crore) people of their country receive two doses of the vaccine within July. That means India will need at least 500 million (50 crore) doses for the purpose. Till Tuesday, India had 127 million (12 crore 70 lakh doses). They need another 373 million (37 crore 30 lakh) doses. Given the production capacity of Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, it will be difficult to reach that target in time.

In the meantime, it will not be possible for Serum to meet its target to increase vaccine production by the end of May either. Reuters on Wednesday reported that towards the end of July Serum will step up its monthly vaccine production from 60 million or 70 million (6 or 7 crore) to 100 million (10 crore).

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Serum basically is unable to increase production due to shortage of raw material. With the US imposing restrictions export of the raw materials, the manufacturing companies are at a loss. Serum’s CEO Adar Poonawalla, in a tweet last Friday, appealed to the US president Joe Biden to lift the restrictions on export of the raw materials.

Under the circumstances, India’s expert committee regarding the vaccine has recommended urgent use of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine. Several Indian companies have already signed agreements to procure the Sputnik vaccine. India, on an urgent basis, has also given approval for the Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines.

In a crisis, everyone becomes selfish. But given the strong relations that we claim, it would have been better if such a situation did not arise. Even if 2.5 million (25 lakh) doses were given per month with the assurance that the rest would be supplied very soon, then we could feel reassured.
Md Touhid Hossain, former foreign secretary

Bangladesh wants vaccines as per agreement

Diplomatic sources in Bangladesh on Wednesday told Prothom Alo that a high level in the government is stepping up efforts to get the remaining consignments of vaccines from India as per the tripartite agreement. They said when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh on 26 March to attend the Mujib Chirantan event, he gave Bangladesh a gift of 1.2 million (12 lakh vaccines). Bangladesh was not very enthusiastic about those vaccines. They feel it is more important to get the remaining consignments of the vaccines from India.

According to diplomatic sources, with the surge of coronavirus cases in India, the government there is under pressure from politicians and other quarters to halt exports of the vaccine. The vaccine issue there is being overseen by the Indian prime minister’s office and a high powered committee.

When asked whether India was taking any initiative regarding the procurement of the vaccine for Bangladesh from Serum Institute, the Indian high commission in Dhaka on Wednesday refrained from comment.

On the latest update regarding procurement of vaccines from Serum Institute, Beximco Pharma’s chief operating officer Rabbur Reza told Prothom Alo, ”We are trying our best to bring in the vaccines. It would be good if the government made an effort too.”

Diplomatic analysts say that as neighbours, Bangladesh and India have strong ties. At this point when the friendship between the two countries is so strong, if the supply of the vaccine becomes uncertain despite advance payment, this will deliver a wrong message to the people. This will cloud public perception about the ties between the two countries and will not bode well for future relations.

Former foreign secretary Md Touhid Hossain, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, “In a crisis, everyone becomes selfish. But given the strong relations that we claim, it would have been better if such a situation did not arise. Even if 2.5 million (25 lakh) doses were given per month with the assurance that the rest would be supplied very soon, then we could feel reassured. It hasn’t been right to stop it altogether.”

* 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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