The government has decided to allocate Tk765 crore to purchase about 22.5 lakh vaccines against Covid-19, the highly infectious disease that has ravaged the world including Bangladesh – both in terms of health and economy.
Bangladesh may get these vaccines towards the end of this year or at the beginning of the next. The move comes at a time when many countries are making payments in advance to get vaccines in as quick a time as possible.
In the first phase, Covid-19 frontline workers – doctors, nurses, health workers and others concerned – will get the vaccines followed by the elderly. Vaccines may be available for the common people afterwards.
According to the health ministry, the number of Covid-19 frontliners, meaning doctors, nurses, police and army personnel, is about 10 lakh in the country.
So far, 78 doctors, 66 policemen and 124 serving and former army personnel, including their family members, have died of the viral disease.
To make allocations for the vaccine purchase, the government is taking away Tk510 crore from two ongoing projects funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
According to an estimate by the health directorate, this fund will be able to buy about 15 lakh vaccines.
In addition, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is joining the ongoing World Bank-funded project to tackle Covid-19 with an assistance of Tk850 crore. From the amount, the government will spend Tk255 crore to buy an additional 7.5 lakh vaccines.
The health directorate has already issued a letter in this respect to the Economic Relations Division under the finance ministry.
All these decisions were made at a high-level meeting held at the Prime Minister's Office recently, according to the minutes of the meeting.
Health Secretary Abdul Mannan told the meeting that the minimum price of a vaccine could be $40 (equivalent to Tk3,400).
Health Minister Zahid Maleque, a few days ago, said Bangladesh had been keeping regular contacts with various organisations, including Oxford University and the United States' Moderna, on the matter of buying vaccines from them.
He also said China and India too had promised to supply vaccines to Bangladesh on a priority basis.
Besides, Bangladesh may get free Covid-19 shots for its four crore people, hopes the health ministry, as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) will purchase 200 crore doses of the finally approved vaccine and distribute them to 20-23 percent of each country's population.
Health Minister Maleque said these vaccines could be available by March-April next year.
Earlier, on August 12, the health minister told the Cabinet Committee on Public Purchase that different countries were paying in advance by signing agreements with various vaccine inventors.
"Those who pay in advance will get the vaccines first. Bangladesh is also contacting various organisations, including Oxford and Moderna," he said.
On the same day, Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal said efforts to collect vaccines from multiple sources should be continued.
He also suggested that the government go for a deal with the Indian company involved with Oxford if a direct agreement with the latter could not be reached, saying that there would be no fund problem in buying the vaccines.
In the budget for the current financial year, a bulk fund involving Tk10,000 crore has been earmarked to meet emergency needs, including buying Covid-19 vaccines.
A meeting with the prime minister presiding it last week was supposed to decide on buying Covid-19 shots, as also deliberate on the issue of testing Chinese vaccines in the country. But the meeting was not held.
Meanwhile, Indian External Affairs Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Bangladesh and discussed Indian vaccine assistance with the top levels of the government.
It may be noted that in April, the government began implementing two projects worth Tk2,592 crore with the assistance of the World Bank and the ADB after the coronavirus had been identified in Bangladesh in March.
As the Covid-19 situation has changed in the country and globally as well in the last few months, the government is now revising the two projects, either by reducing the cost or by cancelling allocations for many sectors, to raise funds for coronavirus vaccines.
The high-level meeting on buying Covid-19 shots was held on August 5 with Ahmad Kaikaus, Principal Secretary of the Prime Minister's Office, in the chair.
Ahmed Kaikaus told the meeting that once the vaccine was discovered, there would be no need for many items that had been included in the two projects. "The activities of the two projects will be reviewed once good news about the vaccine purchase is received."
He also recommended stripping non-essential projects of money, with permission from the Planning Commission, and spend it on essential purposes, including buying vaccines, as it would take time to restructure the Detailed Project Proposals (DPPs)of the two projects.
The World Bank-assisted Covid-19 Emergency Response and Pandemic Preparedness project currently has an allocation of Tk16 crore for the vaccine purchase. Now, the fund is going to be raised to Tk340 crore.
However, there was no allocation for the vaccine purchase in the ADB-funded Covid-19 Response Emergency Assistance project. A Tk160-crore fund is being created from the project by amending its DPP.
Russia has already begun a commercial production of the coronavirus vaccine. Western countries are in doubt about its effectiveness as it has not been tested on a large number of people in the third phase.
Around 200 other organisations and research institutes globally are also working to develop and produce the coronavirus vaccine.
Among them are Oxford University, Shinovac in China, Moderna in the United States and Murdoch Child Research Institute in Australia.
The British government could begin production of three crore doses of the vaccine by this September, following a third trial in Oxford, reported the Telegraph on Friday.
Besides, China is planning to start testing the vaccines developed by Cancino Biologics in the third phase. The firm is talking to many countries, including Russia, Brazil and Chile, for that reason.
China's Shinovac vaccine is also going for a third trial. China hopes to start production of their vaccine before the end of this year.
On the other hand, Johnson & Johnson aims to test its experimental coronavirus vaccine on up to 60,000 volunteers in a late-stage trial scheduled to start in September, according to a US government database of clinical trials.
Rival coronavirus vaccine makers such as Moderna and Pfizer are aiming to recruit up to 30,000 volunteers for their late-stage studies.