…the prevailing view is that the government made a mistake by encouraging the country’s adult population to take Moderna

Younten Tshedup  

Did the government miscalculate by encouraging and recommending people to take the Moderna vaccine as their second dose to AstraZeneca?

With Moderna now being approved for children between the age of 12 and 17 years, many are questioning as to whether the government should have reserved the vaccine for children and vaccinated the adult population with AstraZeneca as the second dose.

“It was only a matter of time before the emergency use approval for Moderna for children was passed. Knowing this, the government should have waited,” said a civil servant. “Now we have AstraZeneca in excess and not enough Modern for our children. This could have been avoided if we had planned better.”

A Thimphu resident, Tashi Tshering, said that there were adequate doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to cover all the eligible population in the country. “When many were sceptic about mixing the vaccine, the government and health experts encouraged the people to take Moderna. Now, we don’t have enough Moderna for our children. It was a complete miscalculation on the part of the government and our health experts.”

But Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that the reason why the government recommended people to take the Moderna vaccine was because of its higher efficacy compared with the other vaccines that were available.

Lyonchhen said that scientifically all vaccines are ‘very safe’. On the efficacy, however, he said that mRNA vaccines were slightly more efficacious than others.   

“We wanted to give the best vaccine to our people and, in that sense, Moderna was by far the best choice.”

He said that if the government had to reserve the Moderna vaccines for children, some 160,000 adults would not have been eligible to receive the Moderna vaccine.

“Who should we have included in this ineligible group? The elderlies or the young?” he asked.

He explained that the elderlies were most vulnerable to Covid-19 and had to be protected with a highly efficient vaccine. “We could not exclude the younger groups as they are more mobile and they can get and pass on the infection further.”

Lyonchhen said that no one was compelled to take the Moderna vaccine as their second dose. “We made a recommendation based on evidence but the decision to choose among the vaccines was always with the public.”

There are about 75,000 children between the age of 12 and 17 years in the country today.

Lyonchhen said that about 150,000 doses of vaccines were needed to cover the group with both the doses. “We have around 60,000 doses of Moderna remaining from the week-long campaign which we have started to administer in high-risk areas from today.”

Almost 90 percent of the eligible children in nine identified dzongkhags including the high-risk areas would receive their first dose from the remaining vaccines, said Lyonchhen.

He said that the 500,000 doses of Moderna were not the last ones in the world. “If it was, we have a reason to worry. But then, with time, the availability of vaccines would go up, more people would have been vaccinated and the production capacity of vaccines would also increase around the world.”

Lyonchhen said that the government was in an advanced stage of dialogue with both Pfizer and Moderna companies to secure more mRNA vaccines. “We are getting about 200,000 doses of Pfizer, expected to arrive towards the end of the year. But then, we are negotiating to bring it a bit early. The company also understands our situation and is looking into all the possibilities.”

He added that the National Immunisation Technical Advisory Group (NI-TAG) has recommended that the second dose of the mRNA should be given within 4 to 8 weeks after the first dose. “We’re already on the lookout for the mRNA vaccines and we’ll make sure all people in the country are protected.”

Doctors at the national referral hospital in Thimphu said that many people with underlying health conditions were given the Moderna vaccine as it was more effective against the Delta variant of the virus.

“We could have suggested AstraZeneca but then these are the high-risk groups who need to be protected with effective vaccines,” said one of the doctors.

All the vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organisation were clinically tested and approved for public use, he added. “Many took the Moderna vaccine because they knew its benefits and not because it was forced upon them.”

Edited by Jigme Wangchuk