PM assures vaccine procurement but says not to pin all hopes on the vaccines 

Younten Tshedup

Bhutan’s access to the Covid-19 vaccine may not be the COVAX Facility alone. It emerged yesterday that the government was also in discussion with the Government of India to procure the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering last evening said that amidst the global demand for the vaccines that have received the emergency use authorisation (EUA), Bhutan, like many other countries, was expecting support from neighbouring India.

India on Sunday approved the EUA for two Covid-19 vaccines — Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and Covaxin, the country’s first indigenous vaccine.

Lyonchhen said that although about four vaccines had currently received the EUA and were approved for public use, in the present scenario, it was difficult to procure the vaccines used in the US and other European countries.

He said that this was mainly because of the high demand and limited production capacity of the manufacturers. “We have communicated with all of them and they have assured their support as well.”

However, he said that given logistics aspects including the cost, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was the ideal candidate for Bhutan for now. 

This was also because India locally manufactured the vaccine under the name Covishield.

The world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India, locally manufactures the Covishield vaccine and is capable of producing around 50 million doses in a month.

Lyonchhen said that India would soon start administering the vaccine among their population, and it was hoped that Bhutan too would receive some dosages as it began. For this, extensive studies and budget for the procurement were all worked out, he added.

The prime minister said that on the command of His Majesty The King, about seven months ago, health experts and the government started working on the vaccine procurement modalities. “Extensive discussions have taken place on this matter.”

He said that because the vaccines were newly developed, there were no existing procurement strategies or a regulation guide on the side effects of such vaccines, should there be any.

He said that the government has completed developing a procurement strategy and regulations to monitor the side effects of the vaccine, including a distribution strategy as and when the vaccines arrive.

“We would require at least a million dosages to vaccinate all the people in the country and not just the Bhutanese citizens,” he said. “And if we don’t get the required quantity at once, we have prioritised who would get it first.”

Health and frontline workers would be the first to receive the vaccines including security personnel and volunteers working during the pandemic. Around 80,000 people have been line-listed in this group.

The next batch of recipients would include elderlies with pre-existing medical conditions. Active population including public transportation drivers would be in the next group, before administering the vaccine to the general population.

All logistical arrangements were in place, said Lyonchhen. However, he said that pinning all hopes on the vaccine would be unwise.

“Even if we get the vaccine, the worry is on the level of protection it would provide,” he said. “The government will ensure the procurement of vaccines, but its effectiveness and the extent of protection is still a question.”

Meanwhile, experts in India have raised concerns over India’s EUA approval of the Covaxin, the country’s first indigenous vaccine against Covid-19, before the completion of trials.

Experts say that there were concerns arising from the absence of the efficacy data from Phase III trials and lack of transparency.

However, Indian authorities have assured that the vaccine was safe and “provided a robust immune response.”