Covid-19 vaccination will continue until the end of this month for those who could not avail the services during the weeklong campaign that ended on April 2.

The service will be available at all health facilities in 20 dzongkhags.

However, people are advised to seek prior appointments before visiting the health centres.  Those who cannot visit the hospitals could contact the health officials for home-based services.

Dr Sonam Wangchuk of the national immunisation technical advisory group (NI-TAG) said that, considering the wastage, hospitals would first collect an adequate number of people (10 people for one vial) and then vaccinate accordingly.

This is because a vial (the small glass container where the vaccine is stored) of Covishield vaccine contains 10 doses of the vaccine.  Once the rubber cap of the vial is punctured by a needle, the vaccine should be used within six hours.

Meaning, if a new vial is opened for five people on the first day, the remaining vaccine cannot be used the next day.

Meanwhile, 469,664 people have received the Covishield (AstraZeneca) vaccination in the last 11 days, which is more than 85 percent of the eligible population and 62 percent of Bhutan’s total population (projected as of 2021).

This means that, of the 100 people, 38 individuals did not receive the vaccine.  This includes children below the age of 18, some pregnant and lactating mothers, seriously ill patients, and those whose cases have been deferred due to certain medical conditions during the vaccine campaign.

NI-TAG member, Dr GP Dhakal, said that, although 62 percent of the total population has been vaccinated, the first dose, also known as a priming dose, doesn’t guarantee 100 percent protection against the virus.

He explained that the priming dose will trigger an immune response and signal the body to produce chemicals to fight the virus known as antibodies after about two weeks following the vaccination.

“Two weeks after the first dose, you may be 50 percent protected which is why, to have full protection, you’ll need to get the second or booster dose. Similarly, adequate antibodies will be produced two weeks after the booster dose,” he said. “That is why until we’re fully protected, we all need to follow preventive measures, such as wearing face masks, practising physical distancing and regularly washing hands.”

He added that, since almost 38 percent of the population remained unvaccinated due to their ineligibility to get the vaccine, they would be severely impacted if there is an outbreak of Covid-19. “So, let us all follow the preventive measures and not become complacent. Our neighbouring countries made this mistake and the virus is now rampantly spreading there. We’re not yet safe from the pandemic.”


Lessons learnt 

Bhutan’s vaccination drive has been considered a global success.  As of yesterday, the country was behind Israel just by 0.3 percent in terms of the share of people who received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.  Israel currently has the highest vaccination score in the world.

However, the success did not come without challenges.  Three people accidentally received a double dose of the vaccine during the initial days of the campaign.  There was a last-minute change in the vaccination plan (from online registration to movement card) and the people were constantly confused with their eligibility to receive the vaccine.

Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that it was not the perfect campaign but, at the end of the period, the turnout was impressive.

He said that going by the social media posts, people were hesitant initially. “At that rate, we thought that not many would not turn up for the vaccination. However, despite the hesitancy, many people came forward, which was very positive.”

He said that all of Bhutan’s vaccination programmes so far have received “very good” coverage including the flu and other routine vaccination programmes. “It was no different this time with the Covid-19 vaccine. We request people to come forward in the same spirit during the second dose.”

He added that information on all aspects of vaccines needed to be frequently shared with the public for better understanding. “The ministry did a lot in disseminating information but I think we can do better,” he said. “Apps like WeChat need to be used more, I think, as many have access to these platforms. Information will have to be sent in local dialects so that it reaches the mass.”

He said that the issue of administering a double dose of vaccine, which was triggered by miscommunication, and challenges at different vaccination facilities would be addressed during the second dose campaign. “All in all, we had a successful campaign. Things should only improve during the second.”

Meanwhile, he said that many people were calling up health officials requesting the Pfizer vaccine. “We haven’t received any Pfizer vaccine so far. And the health ministry isn’t hiding anything.”

He said that Bhutan would receive about 6,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine and 108,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX Facility of which Bhutan is a member.

“We’re yet to receive the vaccines. But our plan is clear; once we get Pfizer, it would be used to vaccinate only those aged 16 and 17 years to cover enough population to achieve herd immunity.”

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one given emergency-use authorisation by the US Food and Drug Administration for 16- and 17-year olds.

Younten Tshedup