Bangladesh was set to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine from India at the same time the neighbouring country rolls out the jab for its citizens
Just a day ago, everything was certain.
Bangladesh was set to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine from India at the same time the neighbouring country rolls out the jab for its citizens. An elaborate master plan was also drawn up to vaccinate 80% of the population in two years.
But everything is uncertain now as India slapped a ban on the export of the vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute.
In spite of the uncertainty over receiving the vaccine from India, the health minister and the health secretary tried to dispel confusion even though they could not provide any hard date on the availability of the vaccine.
The health minister said on Monday he was hopeful to get the vaccine on time but could not specify any date. He earlier said Bangladesh would get the vaccine at the end of January or early February.
The health secretary, however, said India's ban would not affect the vaccine procurement contract.
The foreign minister sounded optimistic, saying the vaccine would arrive within the possible schedule announced earlier by the health minister.
There were conflicting statements as well over the type of the agreement. The health secretary described it as a government-to-government (G2G) deal, but Beximco Pharmaceuticals called it a commercial agreement.
Meanwhile, the Directorate General of Drug Administration (DGDA) approved the import of the vaccine on Monday evening a few hours after Beximco had applied for the authorisation of emergency use of the vaccine in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is paying $120 million in advance, half of the price, to import three crore doses of the vaccine despite India's ban. All processes in this regard have already been completed.
The health minister said the money would reach the Serum Institute by Monday or Tuesday (today).
He also said the Bangladesh government had already received bank guarantee documents from the Serum Institute.
India is now conducting a dry run and will roll out the vaccine soon. Bangladesh's vaccination mission, which largely depends on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from India, is set to start as soon as the government receives the jab.
However, experts have warned about the risk of depending on a single source for the vaccine.
Noted virologist Professor Nazrul Islam said not allowing the Sinovac Biotech vaccine trial in Bangladesh was a wrong decision.
On 27 August last year, the Bangladesh government gave the go-ahead for human trials of the vaccine developed by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech.
But the government later changed its mind because Sinovac asked for cost sharing for the trial.
The country was thrown into confusion when the Serum Institute told AP on Sunday night that they would supply the vaccine only in India until February and would not be able to export it before March.
Mayank Sen, a public relations officer at the Serum Institute, told the BBC that reports on a ban on vaccine exports were not entirely accurate as there was no such ban.
However, the company is now in the process of getting the permission to export the vaccine, which may take up to a few months. Before they start exporting, they have agreed to provide 10 crore doses to the Indian government.
At the moment, they are not able to export as they are not allowed to do so.
Meanwhile, at a press conference on Monday, the Bangladesh health minister said a new problem had emerged as it was not certain yet when the vaccine would be available.
On Monday afternoon, Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen told reporters the Indian foreign ministry had informed them that the vaccine procurement agreement would be implemented.
"Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi also discussed this. So, no ban will affect the import of the vaccine and we have no reason to be worried."
"The statement of the chief executive officer of the Serum Institute is a premature one and does not reflect the policy of the Indian government."
Although the Indian government's vaccine export ban applies to all countries, the health minister said he was hopeful that Bangladesh would get the vaccine under the tripartite agreement inked among Beximco, the health ministry and the Serum Institute.
The agreement was signed on 5 November last year. Some three crore doses were secured in the deal and the vaccine would reach 1.5 crore people or 9% of the population.
In the initial six months of the first phase, the Serum Institute will supply three crore doses of the vaccine – 50 lakh per month.
Describing it as an international agreement, the health minister said India has an obligation to honour such agreements.
"We have been talking to officials of the High Commission of India in Bangladesh and Beximco since morning. Our foreign ministry also discussed this with that of India. They all told us we have nothing to be worried about and will get the vaccine as per the agreement."
"It is not just our expectation that India will give us the vaccine. We have an agreement with them. The problem that has emerged now is India's problem, and not ours," he added.
Health Secretary Abdul Mannan said on Monday noon, "I just spoke to the deputy high commissioner of India in Dhaka. We discussed how the payment to the Serum Institute would be made. Everything, including the bank guarantee given by India, was done on a G2G basis."
"India imposed restrictions on commercial exports, and that does not apply to us. We have a G2G agreement with India. In this case, India's export ban will have no effect."
He said, "During the prime ministerial talks between the two countries, Modi also promised to give three crore vaccine doses to Bangladesh. This means the Indian prime minister also knows that Bangladesh will procure three crore doses of vaccine from the Serum Institute. The Indian high commissioner in Dhaka was also present at the deal signing ceremony."
Mannan expressed hope that the vaccine would arrive by February.
"The Serum Institute will apply for the WHO approval. It takes three weeks to get the approval. February will begin in three weeks. So, there is no risk of getting the vaccine late."
In the meantime, Beximco disagreed with the health secretary's claim that the agreement was G2G.
Nazmul Hassan Papon, managing director of Beximco Pharmaceuticals, told reporters on Monday evening, "It is a tripartite agreement. I do not know how the secretary termed it G2G. The Indian government is not involved in the deal. It is a private contract."
"I do not know whether the health ministry has a separate deal with Oxford," he said.
On the other hand, the foreign minister could not say whether it was a G2G deal or not.
Papon said, "Earlier, we thought the vaccine would come in January or February. Now with this uncertainty, I would request the government to send the advance payment."
"We provided a bank guarantee to the government. We officially applied for vaccine registration on Monday. We have done all there was to do.
"The agreement says the vaccine must be given within a month after the approval. It is not a matter of just two private companies. The government is also involved."
Commenting about India's ban, he said, "I think someone is misinterpreting it. It is not written anywhere whether the vaccine can be exported or not, but a ban may come.
"Since the deal is done, there will be no problem. So far, no one has violated international agreements. Hopefully, there will not be any problem."
Chinese, Russian vaccine import discussions under way
The health minister did not have a direct answer when asked about any plan "B" in case the vaccine could not be procured from India.
But he said talks were under way to bring vaccines from various countries, including China and Russia.
"Discussions about different vaccines are at different stages. Vaccine trials in China and Russia are not over yet. There may be an agreement at the end of their trials."
China's Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical Company has applied for trialling their vaccine in Bangladesh.
Asked whether they would be permitted to run the trial, the minister said, "The Chinese ambassador in Dhaka informed me of this two days ago. I asked him for details about the stage their vaccine is in."
"After the papers are provided, those will be reviewed, and then a decision will be made."