The government has formed a five-member committee to review vaccine proposals of various companies as part of its move to buy vaccines from sources other than Oxford-AstraZeneca.
The committee is headed by Major General Mahbubur Rahman, director general of the Directorate General of Drug Administration. It has been instructed to check which of the vaccines discussed at a meeting on Monday is more effective and can be obtained at the earliest opportunity.
Moreover, the committee will have to submit its report to the health ministry within the next seven working days. The government will then decide on the purchase.
On Monday, an emergency meeting chaired by the principal secretary to the prime minister discussed five vaccine proposals from different countries. Of those, two – Johnson & Johnson and Moderna – are from the US and two – Sinopharm and CanSinoBio – are from China. The other, Sputnik, is from Russia.
Several local companies have contacted four vaccine manufacturers while the government has initiated contact for Sputnik, said a source who attended the meeting. Officials of a pharmaceutical firm told the meeting they would be able to import Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines.
Russia has proposed manufacturing its Sputnik Covid-19 vaccine in Bangladesh in collaboration with local pharmaceuticals under a co-production arrangement.
"We agreed with them [Russia] on co-production of the vaccine, though it is not finalised yet," Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told BSS in a recent interview.
He said Russia had given the manufacturing proposal as it currently does not have that much production capacity to export its vaccine to Bangladesh.
As per the proposal, Russia will provide the technology and Bangladeshi pharmaceutical companies will produce the Sputnik vaccine here, he said.
"If things go well, it will be cheap and hopefully, it will be better," he added.
One of the committee members, Sayed Mojibul Huq, additional secretary to the Health Services Division, told The Business Standard whether a vaccine has the World Health Organisation's approval and how effective it is have to be checked before buying it.
He said the committee members would review the vaccine proposals within the next two days before making its recommendations.
"We have received many vaccine proposals but are not prioritising any of those. We will decide considering which vaccine is being used in which country and when it will be available here," he said.
The foreign minister said Bangladesh had not shown much interest in the Chinese vaccine earlier as it was not approved by the World Health Organisation.
"But now we are keeping all options open to get vaccines," he said.
He said China had informed Bangladesh that it would not be able to export any vaccine before December as it had already committed to supplying vaccines to other countries.
Besides, he said, the World Bank recently informed Bangladesh of providing 80 lakh vaccine doses under COVAX by next month.
"We are hopeful to get the vaccines under COVAX."
On 21 January, Bangladesh received its first-ever Covid-19 vaccine consignment from India while the latter had earlier sent 20 million doses as gifts as part of its "neighbourhood first" policy.
Later, during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bangladesh got another 1.2 million doses as gifts.
Apart from the gifts, Bangladesh purchased 30 million doses of the India-made vaccine under a tripartite memorandum of understanding signed on 5 November last year, and a subsequent agreement on 13 December, among the Bangladesh government, Beximco Pharmaceuticals, and the Serum Institute of India.
As per the agreement, Bangladesh was supposed to receive five million doses per month. But after the first consignment was sent, Dhaka received 20 lakh doses in the second one on 22 February. No other consignment has arrived since then.
"They [India] have been telling us that they would send the vaccines. They never said they could not," Momen said, adding that Dhaka keeps confidence in Indian assurance and is hopeful to get all the 30 million doses within the time frame of the agreement.
But Dhaka feared that Indian vaccine production was not enough considering their internal demand and international commitment, said Momen. "They [India] have taken more orders than they have met."
The minister said the government had also considered engaging the private sector in importing and marketing commercially expensive vaccines, such as Pfizer-BioNTech, in the Bangladesh market to meet the demand.
He said Bangladesh was one of the few countries to get the vaccines first due to the farsighted leadership of Prime minister Sheikh Hasina as she had taken initiatives in this regard from the day the virus had spread.
The government aims to inoculate 80% of the total population free of cost to curb the spread of the deadly virus.
In Bangladesh, nearly 5.5 million people have so far received the first dose of the vaccine while around seven million more have registered for immunisation.