…through the COVAX Facility 

The highly anticipated Covid-19 vaccine through the COVAX Facility arrived in the country yesterday.  

The first tranche includes 5,850 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shipped from New York, US. Upon its arrival at the Paro international airport around 4:30pm yesterday, the vaccines were directly transported to the central storage facility in Thimphu, where it will be stored at a temperature of –70 degree Celsius. 

Initially, Bhutan was identified as one of the first countries to receive the vaccines under the COVAX Facility in the region. However, the arrival was delayed as the indemnification agreement; a legal document with the manufacturer was not signed by the government. 

Only last month, the Cabinet could approve and sign the documents that were required to access the Facility.

Who will receive Pfizer?

The health ministry initially said that the Pfizer vaccines would be strictly used for children who do not qualify to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca (Covishield) vaccine. This is because as per the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendation, Pfizer is the only vaccine approved for children (16 years and above). AstraZeneca is recommended for 18 and above age groups. 

However, given the limited number of doses, the vaccine that arrived yesterday would be enough to inoculate just over 2,900 individuals (taking into account two doses for each individual). 

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering recently said that about 167,000 children did not receive the Covid-19 vaccination in the country, making them more vulnerable to the pandemic.

The government has been working with countries bilaterally to secure more Pfizer doses to cover all the children in the country. Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji earlier said that the government has ordered about 200,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine from Pfizer Inc., the American multinational pharmaceutical corporation.

In the meantime, a member of the national immunization technical advisory group (NI-TAG), Dr Sonam Wangchuk, said that for now, no directives had come from the ministry as to who would receive the 2,900 plus doses of Pfizer vaccine. 

While the team is yet to decide and recommend anything, technically, he said that it would be right to prioritise and use these vaccines for children aged 16 and 17 years in the high-risk areas in the south. 

“This is a very small amount for now so I would suggest if we can vaccinate those children in high-risk thromdes like Phuentsholing and Gelephu,” he said. “It is definitely not going to cover all but if we have to start, I think this would be right.”

Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that as and when more doses of Pfizer vaccine arrive, the rest of the eligible children could be vaccinated. “There are some countries who have vaccinated children as young as 12 years but for now, we are following the WHO recommendation which says Pfizer is approved for 16 years and above.” 

He added that the NI-TAG had to deliberate on the vaccination plan once the ministry tasks the team. “For now, nothing has been decided.” 

Bhutan is also expected to receive 108,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the COVAX Facility soon. The procurement of the vaccine and other logistical arrangements including strengthening the national cold chain system for Covid-19 is being carried out by UNICEF. 

UNICEF Bhutan Representative, Dr Will Parks, said: “The arrival of Bhutan’s first consignment of life-saving supplies through the COVAX Facility will contribute towards our collective efforts to keep people safe from Covid-19.” 

By Younten Tshedup 

Edited by Jigme Wangchuk