March 2021 was much awaited. Given the terrain, spread, and connectivity, the Covid-19 vaccination drive was an undertaking of an immense logistic nightmare. To accomplish administration of close to 500,000 covid vaccines, covering 85 percent of the adult population in just a week is nothing short of a Herculean task.

For all the people who have worked tirelessly to protect us, His Majesty has remained the consistent source of wisdom, motivation, and inspiration. That a small nation like Bhutan could even secure the supply of is remarkable in itself. Finally, after more than a year of uncertainty, people are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. With less than 1,000 infections, our perseverance has paid us well and we have enjoyed relative safety. The first round of vaccination came as a much-needed morale boost but we cannot breathe a sigh of relief just yet.

Multiple companies have rolled out vaccines in record time and more are on their way. The scientific achievements by global communities in developing vaccines and treatments against the disease have been exceptional. Many of these vaccines have demonstrated high efficacy with some even exceeding expectations. Further, the unintended benefits of reduced severity in vaccinated people have come as an added bonus.

Defeating the virus, though, has been easier said than done. Mutations happen and we must tackle with the new variants.

As the virus copies itself to multiply, sometimes it makes small random errors in its genetic sequence. This phenomenon is known as mutation. Mutations can be inconsequential or even render the virus non-viable. However, some mutations make it more survivable, resulting in a new variant. A large number of worldwide infections and build-up of immunity in the infected population is believed to be driving the emergence of new variants. After several rounds of mutations, the virus changes its characteristics sufficiently enough to become quite different from its original form. This potentially renders the vaccines useless, as the antibodies produced in response to the current vaccinations fail to recognise the new variants.

Recently, the Serum Institute of India made a refund of 500,000 doses of Covishield to South Africa. South Africa, claiming limited efficacy of the vaccine against the variant prevalent in their country decided not to use the vaccine. Covishield is developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and Bhutan imported around 550,000 doses. The good news is that several media outlets from India have reported that Covisheild is effective against UK (B.1.1.7) and Brazilian (P.1) variants. A study in Israel claims that the South African variant (B.1.351) can break through Pfizer vaccine as well. Bhutan imported around 5,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine.

To defeat the pandemic, though, a coordinated global effort and equitable distribution of vaccines is imperative. Countries like China and South Korea that may have gained control over the disease are now faced with the risk of re-infection from other nations. With leaders still refusing to impose restrictions to curb the disease, the situation in Brazil has been dubbed as a “biological Fukushima”.

The soaring infections and the emergence of new variants on a weekly basis have become a threat to the efforts of the international community. When the first wave of infections slowed down, neighbouring India was beginning to relax with the expectation of having somehow acquired herd immunity. Now the second wave has broken all previous records and the country has become a hotspot for the virus. Besides being sloppy in following covid protocols, the highly infectious new variants have been blamed for India’s new wave.

As the Covid-19 variants sweep across the globe, drug makers are scrambling to tweak their vaccines to address the new variants. Many countries have reinforced social distancing. With lockdowns looming on the horizon once again, economists are recalibrating and downgrading their forecasts. Bhutan’s fight against the disease has been exemplary, contributing significantly to the global efforts. But as long as the disease continues to survive and evolve somewhere around the globe, we are not out of the woods.

The current spike in India could mean a possible shortage of vaccines. We cannot afford to be sloppy with our Covid protocols, not even for a moment. It is still an on-going global race against evolution, and Covid-19 has responded with diverse variants that are even more contagious and possibly able to circumvent current vaccines.

Contributed by

Namgay Phuntsho

Babena, Thimphu