The health ministry has decided to procure Covid-19 vaccine from the US company Johnson & Johnson to reduce dependence on India.
As decided at a recent inter-ministerial meeting chaired by Health Minister Zahid Maleque, the vaccine will be bought from Johnson through Unicef in the wake of the Indian government's ban on exports of Oxford vaccine manufactured by Serum last week, sources at the health ministry confided to The Business Standard.
When contacted, Health Secretary Abdul Mannan said, "We had a meeting in this regard."
Additional Secretary to the health ministry Md Helal Uddin said, "Discussions are going on over importing Johnson's vaccine. It will take a few more days to finalise it."
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) will finance the vaccine import. The development partner has committed $940 million to Bangladesh to tackle the pandemic. The country will pay Johnson for vaccine doses from the fund. A loan deal might be signed in April to this end.
Health ministry officials say there is uncertainty about getting doses from the Serum Institute of India on time because of India's ban on vaccine export despite having an agreement on importing vaccines from the drugmaker via Beximco Pharmaceuticals.
On the other hand, Covax, which was supposed to give two crore doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca to Bangladesh towards the end of this month, sent a mail, informing that it would supply the doses in the first week of May only if India lifts its export ban, they added.
The ongoing countrywide inoculation drive might stop because of the supply holdup.
Under such circumstances, the government has decided to import the Covid vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, as an alternative source to Serum.
The health ministry has also decided to permit private imports of vaccines.
But the private imports will require permission from both the global regulatory authority and Bangladesh regulatory authority. The health ministry has also directed the health directorate and the drug administration directorate to quickly formulate a guideline over importing vaccines and their usages, according to the health ministry.
Meanwhile, only 50,752 people were given the first shot yesterday to save doses for the second jab, keeping in mind a possible crisis because of India's export ban on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The number of people jabbed on the day was less than half the average number in the last 42 days. As of yesterday, 1,27,867 people have been administered vaccine on an average per day.
The Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine is compatible with Bangladesh's standard vaccine storage and distribution channels with ease of delivery to remote areas.
The vaccine can be stored at temperatures between 2°C and 8°C, maintaining the cold chain at routine refrigeration, just like the process followed in terms of the Oxford vaccine.
The single-dose vaccine costs $6-10 per dose in the global market, and Bangladesh plans to procure it at $10, a health ministry official said, seeking anonymity.
On 27 February, the Prime Minister issued a directive to procure three crore more doses so no one in the country stays out of immunisation.
Complying with the directive, the health ministry has taken a move to import the Johnson vaccine, which gathered more pace following India's vaccine export ban imposed on 25 March.
The government will not have to bear any additional cost for preservation and transportation if the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is procured.
The country does not have the cold chain to preserve and transport the United States' Moderna and Pfizer and China's Sinovac.
Experts have long been suggesting that the government collect vaccines from different sources, rather than relying on a single one.
The decision to import Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a positive move, they say.
Prof Md Sayedur Rahman, chairman of the Bangladesh Pharmacological Society and the Department of Pharmacology at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, appreciated the plan to import Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccine.
"That is a good choice so far as the vaccine is single-dose and we have the cold chain for it. Besides, Johnson & Johnson shot offers 90% efficiency," he told The Business Standard.
In the meantime, Dr ASM Alamgir, principal scientific officer at the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), said the government aims at purchasing 3 crore doses of vaccine through open tender.
"The single-dose vaccine will speed up the nationwide immunisation if the tender can secure Johnson & Johnson Covid jabs," he noted.
Bangladesh rolled out mass inoculation on 7 February with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by India's Serum Institute, and more than 53.70 lakh citizens have been immunised until 31 march.
Vaccination turnout in the first week of the roll-out was 1.29 lakh per day, which rose to 2.33 lakh a day in the second week. More than 2.61 lakh people took their first shot of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on 18 February – the highest single-day count so far.
But the turnout has been witnessing a downtrend since 11 March, which now stands at below 50,000 per day.
On the inoculation downturn, Dr ASM Alamgir said they slowed down the immunisation owing to India's vaccine export ban and to ensure the second dose is administered eight weeks after the first shot.
"But if the supply rises, the vaccination drive will reach out to the union level and all eligible citizens will be inoculated as per the government's plan," he added.
According to the tripartite deal among Serum Institute, Beximco Pharma and the health ministry, Bangladesh will get 3 crore doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in six months – 50 lakh doses per month. After 50 lakh doses in January, India supplied 20 lakh doses of Covid vaccine to Bangladesh in February.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also talked about vaccine supply during her counterpart Narendra Modi's recent Dhaka visit. The Indian prime minister assured Bangladesh of the vaccine supply.
In the last week of March, Health Minister Zahid Maleque told the media that he did not have any update over the 50 lakh doses supposed to arrive in Dhaka from Delhi this month.
However, the prime minister's Private Industry and Investment Adviser Salman F Rahman told TBS on 25 March that Bangladesh will remain out of the purview of India's export ban on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and will get supplies as per demand whenever necessary.
Apart from 70 lakh doses of Covid vaccine under the import deal, the country got 32 lakh doses of the vaccine as gifts from India.
Bangladesh had 4,829,569 doses of the vaccine until Wednesday; which means administering the second dose may face a crisis if the supply is delayed further.