THE fight against the COVID-19 pandemic that has so far killed 6,644 and infected 4, 64,932 people in Bangladesh saw some hope with the news of certain success in several vaccines research to the extent that some are nearly ready for wider global distribution. On November 4, the government signed a trilateral memorandum of understanding with Serum Institute of India and Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd in Bangladesh to collect three crore doses of COVID-19 vaccines developed by Oxford University with 70 per cent efficacy. Once the vaccine is approved for human application, Beximco Pharma will buy each dose from Serum for $4 and then supply it to the government for $5. However, AstraZeneca which has obtained the licence of the vaccine from the Oxford University and later signed agreement with Serum in India announced the price ceiling for the vaccine at $3. In the process, therefore, Bangladesh is set to spend about Tk 260 crore extra that appears unjustified and raises question about the transparency of the vaccine procurement process.
While it is commendable that the government has decided to distribute and administer the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine free of cost, it seems the procurement decision was rushed, without due preparation and a concrete vaccine policy. Many public health experts have suggested that the government needs to have a national serosurveillance survey to know the actual data about the exposure levels and the presence of antibodies in people to have an idea about the required doses of vaccine and set the priority for its justified distribution. There are also challenges of scientifically preserving and delivering vaccines maintaining the required cold chain network. It is unclear how Beximco plans to maintain the WHO-recommended temperature ranges, from the point of manufacture to the point of administration since existing network of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation is not prepared for the task. In what follows, it will not be mistaken to suggest that the government is proceeding with the COVID-19 vaccine procurement rather unprepared that could result in the mismanagement of the fund. The fact that about Tk 7.36 billion was also released for the procurement of the said vaccine without approval of the cabinet committee on economic affairs and the cabinet committee on national purchases is indicative of the possible financial mismanagement. The government has also granted Beximco to import another 10 lakh doses from Serum to sell at double price on local market. This is sadly an early indication of privatisation of the vaccine.
Ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccine is important and the government can only attain this goal with a scientifically informed national vaccine policy and a proper plan to purchase, distribute and vaccinate the population. A hasty purchase, as evidenced in the ongoing procurement process, could only become another case of health sector scam and injudicious spending of public money. The government must prioritise universal access, not the interest of the businesses involved in the development and distribution of the vaccine.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Editorial