The Government of Bangladesh has launched the biggest-ever mass vaccination program to vaccinate over 130 million (80%) of the country's total population with the Covid-19 vaccines in four stages even though nearly 34% of the population are below 18 years.
Whether to waiver the Covid-19 vaccine patent rights or not is a burning issue now because the vaccination rate is slower in low- and middle-income countries. According to Google News, in the USA 45% of people have received at least one shot and 32% were fully vaccinated. In Israel 59.8% people completed their first doses and 56% got their booster shot. Whereas in India, 9.6% of the population had received one shot and 2.3% were fully vaccinated. In Bangladesh, at least 3.6% of the population received their first dose and 2% are fully vaccinated.
To reach herd immunity where viruses cannot spread faster and mutate easily, at least 70% of the population of a country needs to be vaccinated. Though developed countries can achieve this goal in the near future as they have already ordered enough vaccines but low- and middle-income countries are very unlikely to do so.
For Bangladesh, the situation is graver, because not only do we not have access to adequate supply of vaccines, but a couple of recent studies indicate that vaccine hesitancy among the population is very high.
Some countries and influential people are putting pressure on the Biden administration and WTO to waive the patent rights of Covid-19 vaccine so that lower income countries can also produce vaccines (generic vaccine). This will speed up the production of vaccines and will help the low- and middle-income countries to achieve herd immunity.
Many critics of that move, including Pfizer and Moderna vaccine makers, said that just waiving the patent rights won't help as it will be like handing out recipes without giving the necessary ingredients to make the vaccine.
RNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna require sophisticated laboratories that will take at least a decade to set up. And even if they do, there is a concern over quality and supply of ingredients. Though US vaccine makers can easily get their vaccine ingredients timely through the Defense Production Act, other countries are already facing shortages which will further impact their vaccine production even after the waiving of patent rights.
In Bangladesh even though we have a world-renowned pharmaceutical company which can produce the generic vaccine, they will likely face vaccine equipment shortages when they start producing hundreds of million vaccines.
Vaccine hesitancy refers to delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services. It is a big issue when it comes to reaching herd immunity. In the USA it is becoming clear that right wing conspiracy theorists and their advocate networks like Fox News (influential right wing TV host Tucker Carlson) are driving the narrative for anti-vaxxers.
According to two new studies in Bangladesh, 41.1% and 32.5% people respectively are vaccine hesitant. So, the number is high enough to impede the mass vaccination program to reach herd immunity. Women, Muslims and the city corporation's population had more hesitancy towards the Covid-19 vaccine. Increased level of knowledge regarding Covid-19 vaccine may decrease the hesitancy level.
So, the Government of Bangladesh needs to make sure that pharmaceutical companies get their vaccine ingredients easily from the USA, if WTO lifts the patent rights, and they cannot charge too much for the production of vaccines and supply it at production cost.
And to decrease vaccine hesitancy, the government needs to take the BCC and SBCC program to increase the awareness about the Covid-19 vaccine. Vaccination centers need to be expanded to the grass-roots level, registration systems need to be easier for the illiterate population and certain incentives can be given for getting the Covid-19 vaccine. And lastly, the government can mandate Covid-19 vaccine for the population if they want to participate in certain social activities.
Mahmud- Ul- Haque is an undergraduate student of Population Sciences in the University of Dhaka and a contributor at The Business Standard.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.