Bangladesh's hopes and despair over fair vaccine share

US Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (Democrat- Texas) has assured Bangladesh of a fair share of Covid-19 vaccines, during a meeting with Bangladesh ambassador to the United States, Shahidul Islam. During this meeting, she termed Bangladesh as an important ally of the US and said that the two countries enjoy the best of relationships.

Time will tell whether this assurance of the US Congress member will bear fruit when Bangladesh is making various efforts to procure the vaccine. We want to keep faith on this influential Congress member. Sheila Jackson assured the ambassador of reviving the Congressional Bangladesh Caucus to promote Bangladesh’s interests and advance Bangladesh-US cooperation further on wide-ranging areas including trade, commerce, Covid-19 support, and Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar.

Bangladesh is making all-out efforts to procure Covid-19 vaccines from various countries including the USA, Russia and China. No final agreement has been signed with any country as yet. A deal with Russia is under process. China expressed dissatisfaction after a government official disclosed the selling price of the vaccine during the process to sign an agreement with Sinopharm. Bangladesh expressed it regret. Hopefully, the agreement will be signed this month. The finance ministry has already has disbursed Tk 2.8 billion (280 crore) to avoid any hassle in payment.

Bangladesh signed an agreement with the Serum Institute of India (SII) on 13 December last year to purchase 30 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca shots. Serum received about Tk 13 billion (Tk 1,300 crore) in advance. Under the deal, Bangladesh was to receive five million (50 lakh) doses of vaccines per month. But Serum stopped exporting on the excuse of a government ban, after supplying 7 million (70 lakh) vaccines in two installments. At that time, the managing director of Beximco Pharmaceutical and one of the signatories of the agreement, Nazmul Hasan, said Serum must supply the vaccine. Two months has passed since then, but neither Beximco nor Serum has made any effort so far. The foreign ministry contacted Delhi through diplomatic channels but hasn’t received any positive feedback as yet.

After a meeting of the cabinet committee on government purchase on 23 June, finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal told a virtual briefing, if Serum can’t supply vaccines as per the agreement, they would return the advance payment. He, however, said the health ministry can provide the details of this matter.

The health ministry is silent. Beximco Pharmaceuticals and Serum Institute are silent too. So there is no alternative to frantic efforts to get the vaccine from other countries. The meeting of Bangladesh ambassador with US Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is a part of this effort. All-out effort must be made to get the vaccine not only from the US but also from all countries manufacturing vaccines. The matter of vaccines is no longer limited to trade, it has become a part of geopolitics now. If necessary, diplomatic efforts will have to be taken at the highest level to get the fair share of vaccines. We can't just sit idle, lamenting that “all countries assure us, but nobody gives us the vaccines.”