With uncertainty looming over supply of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine from India's Serum Institute, Bangladesh Wednesday approved the local manufacturing of China's Sinopharm and Russia's Sputnik V vaccines.
The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, chaired by Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal, approved in principle the proposals for producing Chinese and Russian vaccines after the Chinese government agreed to manufacture the Sinopharm vaccine in Bangladesh.
"Dhaka is in talks with Beijing regarding the Sinopharm vaccine production. We will have an agreement with the Chinese company soon," Health Minister Zahid Maleque said at a programme Wednesday.
The minister said there is already an agreement with Russia over Sputnik V vaccine production in Bangladesh.
Of the private sector drug makers, Incepta Pharmaceuticals, Popular Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare Pharmaceuticals have the capacity to produce the vaccines. The production will also be possible if the state-run Institute of Public Health – the oldest vaccine maker in South Asia – is modernised.
The developments emerged after nine months since China showed interest in running a vaccine trial in Bangladesh. Dhaka then opted for a tripartite vaccine deal with India's Serum Institute and paid for 3 crore doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be supplied in six months.
But as India imposed a ban on vaccine export followed by a severe resurgence of Covid-19 in the country, neighbouring Bangladesh had to go for alternatives.
Health Minister Zahid Maleque yesterday said Beximco Pharma, the sole distributor of Serum's vaccine in Bangladesh, the health ministry and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are requesting India for the vaccine supplies.
In July last year, China's Sinovac sent a proposal to Dhaka to conduct a coronavirus vaccine trial here. The Bangladesh Medical Research Council approved the proposal and the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) was preparing for the trial subsequently.
At that time, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla made a surprise visit to Dhaka and Bangladesh's interest in the trial of Chinese vaccine subsided as Bangladesh opted for the India-manufactured Oxford vaccine.
Over the past two weeks, the government has stepped up efforts for vaccines from China and Russia to ease the vaccine crisis after India imposed an export ban.
It was not a wise decision: Experts
Rejecting the Chinese proposal and relying on a single source was not a wise decision, say health experts.
They think if the Chinese vaccine trial had begun in time, it would have been possible to produce the Chinese vaccine in the country long ago through technology transfer.
Collecting the vaccine from sources other than Oxford-AstraZeneca is a good decision, though it is already late, they say.
They added if the vaccine is produced in the country now, the government must have the authority and leadership on it.
In the meantime, after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal said, "The approval for producing Chinese and Russian vaccines has been given. At the same time, we will pursue procuring vaccines from our primary source – Serum Institute."
After the meeting, Cabinet Division's Additional Secretary Dr Sahida Akter said, "The final approval was given following recommendation from National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19 and policy makers of the government.
"The cost of the vaccine production can be known after the proposal is placed before the purchase committee."
When asked, the additional secretary said, "China has agreed to allow Bangladesh to produce their vaccine here. And the production will begin as soon as possible."
The meeting also approved purchasing PPE, mask, PCR kits under direct purchase method without tender.
On Tuesday, Maj Gen Mahbubur Rahman, director general of the Directorate General of Drug Administration, told journalists that Incepta is talking to officials in Russia about whether the vaccine can be produced here. "Hopefully, we will be able to do so," he said.
The government is preparing to import 40 lakh doses of the Russian ovid-19 vaccine Sputnik V next month and to produce the vaccine locally as well.
'Govt must have control over local production'
Professor Sayedur Rahman, chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, told The Business Standard that if the mass inoculation continues in full swing, the number of infections and deaths will also reduce.
The government must have the leadership and authority on vaccine manufacturing locally and the technology transfer, he added.
"We are now in a vaccine crisis because the state did not have a prominent role in vaccine procurement for the first time. So do not repeat the same thing during the vaccine collection the second time," he further said.
Prof Muzaherul Huq, a former advisor to the World Health Organization's Southeast Asia region, told TBS that it was a positive decision of the government to procure the Chinese and Russian vaccines locally.
"But the production cannot be left to the private sector alone. The government's capacity has to be increased instead," he noted.
On 5 November last year, the health ministry signed a tripartite memorandum of understanding with the Serum Institute and Beximco to import the vaccine developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca.
As per a deal with India's Serum Institute and Beximco, the Bangladesh government was supposed to get 50 lakh doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine every month. Bangladesh has so far received 70 lakh doses in two shipments under the deal.
Bangladesh now has only 16.82 lakh doses of vaccine out of 1.2 crore doses.
Administering the first dose has already been postponed. The second dose for 13 lakh people is still uncertain as India did not confirm when the next vaccine consignment will arrive in Dhaka.