Prescribed gap between the first and second doses at 16 weeks runs out in mid-July
Days ahead of a deadline to complete Bhutan’s COVID-vaccination programme, the European Union has stepped in to help supply the much-needed half a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, officials confirmed to The Hindu.
The vaccines will allow Bhutan to complete its second round of inoculation after India, which had provided enough vaccines for the first round, failed to export the next batch due to the pandemic surge in April, when its Vaccine Maitri programme was suspended.
“The E.U. and its Member States are actively pursuing concrete options through the EU Civil protection mechanism [for Bhutan]; decisions will be taken in the coming days,” a E.U. official said on Wednesday. It is understood that the E.U. has agreed to coordinate supplies from its member countries and is now helping negotiate the paperwork with AstraZeneca to allow those countries to re-export their surplus stocks of AstraZeneca’s Vaxzevria to Bhutan. The E.U. is also coordinating the logistics including air transportation and cold-chain requirements for the early transfer of doses.
Bhutan has been running against time in its quest for vaccines, as the prescribed gap between the first and second doses at 16 weeks, runs out in mid-July. In addition, the distribution to the remotest corners is likely to take a further 10-11 days, just as the first round in March did, when doses reached 93% of the eligible adult population of 5,30,000.
India’s “good word”
Bhutanese officials, who welcomed the E.U.’s decision to activate its civil protection mechanism to procure the vaccines from countries who could spare them, said India too played a role by putting in a “good word” with countries well-disposed to assist. In particular, the countries who have agreed to send the supplies are those whose vaccine stocks had not expired, nor were they required for their domestic use.
“Like a good friend, India has been very helpful in helping to mobilise vaccine donations from friendly countries,” the official said, adding that they are ‘hopeful’ that the E.U. donations will reach Thimphu by next week, so that they reach recipients in time.
Health Minister Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo told The Hindu on Sunday her government had reached out to more than 15 countries for vaccine supplies, as well as the international COVAX and GAVI alliances, and has made all preparations so that as soon as the doses land in Thimphu they will be transported out to health centres across the country.
“We know that if we get the vaccine even tomorrow, we will be rolling out immediately, and there will not be any bottleneck,” Ms. Wangmo said, expressing confidence in the health system.
The E.U.’s decision will also come as a relief to the Lotay Tshering government, said analysts, given that the E.U. is one of only about 55 entities that Bhutan has established diplomatic relations with, as it would not prefer to seem dependent or indebted to UNSC P-5 countries including the U.S. and China, which it has no diplomatic ties with. The U.S. announced last week that it would be sending stocks of other vaccines like Pfizer and Modern to Thimphu as part of its free distribution of 80 million vaccines to developing countries worldwide, but it would have meant Bhutan would be forced to “mix and match” its vaccines.
The E.U.’s Civil Protection Mechanism is an initiative of the European Commission to work on cooperation in “disaster preparedness, prevention and response”, and primarily works on issues like climate change. However, given the severity of the pandemic, the E.U., through its Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) had helped coordinate supplies of oxygen containers, concentrators and other essentials for India in May 2021.
This month, its member countries also sent ventilators and protective gear for Nepal.