An impending mess of COVID-19 vaccine procurement

Published: 00:00, Jan 06,2021


COVID-19 vaccine procurement became the most happening scene in Bangladesh on Monday, with a series of incidents taking place in a quick succession, after India had ordered a ban for several months on the export of the vaccine that the Serum Institute of India would produce, casting doubts on the timely availability of the 30 million doses of the vaccine from India. The Bangladesh government on November 5, 2020 entered into an agreement with the Indian institute, a partner of AstraZeneca which holds the production licence of the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford, and the institute’s Bangladesh agent Beximco Pharmaceuticals Limited, meant to transport the vaccine to Bangladesh in the appropriate cold chain, for the supply of the doses, the first consignment of which is expected by late January or early February. The arrival of the first consignment has become almost uncertain now although Bangladesh health authorities seek to say that the ban would not stop the timely arrival as the agreement, ‘international’ in nature, was signed between the two governments and the ban was meant for ‘internal commercial release’ in India. While anything international hardly bears any importance for India, as evident in issues of international import that have been left unresolved between Bangladesh and India because of New Delhi’s reluctance, Beximco brushes aside the claim of the health authorities that it was an agreement between the governments.

All this has betrayed the short-sightedness of Bangladesh authorities and their dependence on a single source for the vaccine as they earlier declined to take part in the trial of a vaccine that China’s Sinovac developed. The trial was meant to begin in September 2020 and Sinovac agreed to provide Bangladesh with 1.1 million doses free and to transfer the technology to a firm of Bangladesh. Sinovac sought Bangladesh’s co-funding for the trial, but Bangladesh delayed the approval, leaving Sinovac out. The health minister at a press conference on Monday said that the inspection of another proposal for a vaccine, also developed by a Chinese company, was going on. Another option that remains is Russia’s vaccine. But Bangladesh has not effectively dealt with the options in time when Bangladesh should, rather, have taken part in the global trial of COVID-19 vaccines, as many as could be available, which could make it easy for Bangladesh to build its standing on the global stage and to lay hands on vaccines, developed by international drug manufacturers as soon as they were ready for application after the approval. A single source dependence has not also allowed Bangladesh to assess the pricing. In the case of Serum Institute vaccines, the authorities are reported to pay the institute $5 for each dose of vaccine and the institute would pay Beximco $1 in cold-chain transport cost. With other options having been open, Bangladesh could have at least assessed pricing options and opted for the optimal one.

The National Technical Advisory Committee on COVID-19 in August 2020 recommended that Bangladesh should engage in as many vaccine trials as possible, but health managers have for reasons unknown ignored the recommendations, now having been in a position not to tell when Serum vaccine will be available in Bangladesh. The authorities must, therefore, consider laying their hands on all vaccines around the corner and step up to the plate in this direction.

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