About 40,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca and 5,000 Pfizer vaccines through the COVAX Facility in the second quarter this year     

Younten Tshedup  

Bhutan is likely to receive around 40,000 doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX Facility before the end of March.

The COVAX Facility has allocated about 108,000 doses of the vaccine for Bhutan.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) representative in Bhutan, Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus, said that of the total indicative doses, about 35-40 percent was expected to be available in the first quarter this year. The remaining doses would be dispatched in the second quarter (May to June).

However, he said that the vaccine would be made available through the Facility only after the WHO provides emergency use listing (EUL). In an emergency situation like the current pandemic, global bodies like the WHO and regulatory authorities in respective countries give the EUL or an emergency use authorisation (EUA) to a drug or vaccine for public usage.

The WHO on December 31 last year granted EUL to Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine.

Dr Rui said the EUL process usually took two to three months to complete, depending on the quality and availability of the data submitted by the vaccine developers.

He said that currently around 10 vaccine developers have submitted their data to the WHO.   

All the candidates were under various stages of the review process for EUL, he added.

“For AstraZeneca vaccine, we are looking at a tentative time of mid-February to receive the decision on whether the vaccine will receive the EUL,” he said. “For Moderna, the expected timeline for the decision is end of February 2021.”

This means that by the end of this month, the WHO will have a decision on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Kuensel learnt that the government is waiting for the approval from the WHO to start the inoculation among the selective groups before the mass vaccination programme started.

Further to this, Dr Rui said that Bhutan was also being considered to receive about 5,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine as part of the ‘first wave supply’ of Pfizer vaccines through the COVAX Facility. The tentative date for the vaccine supply is within the first quarter of the year (by March end).

Until the recent bilateral assistance, Bhutan’s only access to the Covid-19 vaccine was through the COVAX Facility. COVAX is one of three pillars of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which was launched in April 2020 by the WHO, the European Commission and France in response to the pandemic.

As a member of the Facility, Bhutan would receive free vaccines for 20 percent of its population under the initiative. The COVAX Facility also ensures equal and timely distribution of the vaccine especially to the developing nations.

However, recently the WHO warned about a growing trend—rich and powerful countries starting to hoard the vaccines for their own countries, depriving the poor and developing countries of the much-needed support.

Dr Rui said that the nationalisation and hoarding of vaccines was a concern for the WHO. He said that while individual governments wanted to protect their citizens, there were concerns when people at relatively lower risk received the vaccines in rich countries, while those at much higher risk in other countries such as health workers and older people, who stand to benefit the most from vaccines do not receive them.

“WHO DG Dr Tedros sees this as a serious threat to the equitable access of vaccines. We will need everyone to come together, especially those countries who have the capacity to make a difference,” he said.

Dr Rui added: “For Bhutan, the government had secured a significant amount of the AstraZeneca vaccine through its proactive bilateral efforts and of course, the generosity of the Indian government. However, if countries continue to nationalise vaccines, it will be a concern for many countries, including Bhutan in terms of accessing the vaccines.”