More than 80 percent of the entire population needs to be vaccinated to enable certain relaxations post-vaccination 

Younten Tshedup  

By the end of July, all adults in the country are expected to receive the much-awaited second dose of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering on July 7 announced that the government had managed to secure an adequate number of Covid-19 vaccines through donor countries.

Vaccination could begin by the third week of the month.

Many are already questioning whether the second dose of the vaccine would bring about certain relaxations in the existing Covid-19 protocols, including requirement of quarantine while travelling from higher to lower risk areas.

Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo said that the government was considering certain relaxations following the completion of the second dose. However, she said that the level of relaxation would be contingent upon the vaccination coverage.

Lyonpo explained that with the outbreak of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the country,   the vaccination coverage required was now higher. “During our first round of vaccination, more than 25,000 eligible people in the country did not get their shots. If it is the same situation this time, achieving herd immunity would be difficult.”

Lyonpo said that higher the vaccination coverage, the more the possibility of introducing relaxation. “If the coverage is not adequate for us to achieve herd immunity, I think the existing restrictions would continue as it is.”

Lyonchhen said that for Bhutan to secure herd immunity from the Delta variant of the virus, at least 80 percent of the total population needed to be vaccinated. “We could manage only around 65 percent from the first dose of vaccine, which is far from adequate to protect our people from the possible outbreaks.”

According to the 2017 population and housing census of Bhutan, the projected population of Bhutan in 2021 is 756,129. Meaning, more than 604,000 people must be vaccinated this time to achieve herd immunity.

Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that to achieve herd immunity and have higher vaccine coverage, children in the country also needed to be vaccinated. “Unless we consider immunizing our children, we will not achieve the required herd immunity as almost 30 percent of our population is children below the age of 18 years,” she said, adding that the government was also considering vaccinating children.

According to sources, Bhutan would also be receiving an adequate number of Moderna vaccines, which in many of the countries have received green signal to be used in children above the age of 12.

Lyonchhen recently said that the manufacturers of the Moderna vaccine had sought approval from the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to use their vaccines in children above the age of 12 years.

The health ministry has started registering people above the age of 11 years and those who had not registered during the first round of the vaccination through the Bhutan Vaccination System.

Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that once the government decides to vaccinate the children, it would be rolled out in schools. “We have had a successful experience when it comes to vaccinating our children. During the recent HPV vaccination for boys, we achieved about 97 percent coverage.”

Should everything go as planned, by the end of the month, Bhutan would be one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate its entire eligible population with both the doses of Covid-19 vaccine.

Lyonpo said: “It is not a competition for us to become the first or last country. For us it is more about protecting our people and having an assurance that we are adequately protected. Our health system is not as mature as many other countries, which is why it is all the more important to be fully vaccinated.”

She added that even after the vaccination, the pandemic would not end for Bhutan. “Certain level of normalcy would come but it would be within the new normal as the virus continues to evolve,” she said. “We’ll continue to study the emerging evidence and change our interventions and strategies from time to time. For the health ministry, our journey will continue even after the vaccination.”

Edited by Jigme Wangchuk