Health officials claim the country will be primarily relying on free vaccines through donations and aid to inoculate its eligible population
Pakistan’s National Health Service on Thursday informed the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that it is primarily relying on free coronavirus vaccines to inoculate the country’s eligible population, adding that there are no plans to purchase inoculations “as we don’t need much.”
Briefing the PAC about the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government’s plans to procure COVID-19 vaccines, NHS Secretary Amir Ashraf Khawaja said that China’s Sinopharm had committed to donating one million doses of its vaccine to Pakistan. Of this, he said, 500,000 doses had already been received by Pakistan, with around 275,000 doses already administered to frontline healthcare workers.
The health official said the second phase would focus on health workers that weren’t directly dealing with COVID-19 patients, as well as people over 65, for whom the government has already commenced registrations. He claimed Pakistan would be able to vaccinate 70 million this year.
According to the breakup provided by Khawaja, Pakistan would get 16 million free doses of the Indian manufactured Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX regime. This would cover 20 percent of Pakistan’s eligible population, he said, adding that the first batch was expected by mid-March, while the remainder would reach the country by June.
The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization is a public-private global health partnership aimed at equitable access to immunizations in lower-income countries. Islamabad has repeatedly claimed that it would prove sufficient to cover Pakistan’s inoculation needs. However, COVAX has already said that after the first tranche, it would not provide additional doses to cover the rest of the country’s population until 2022.
To a question on whether the government was deliberately waiting on procurement to get free vaccines only, the NHS secretary claimed “we don’t need to purchase much.” National Institute of Health Executive Director Maj. Gen. Aamir Ikram claimed the cost of the vaccine was too expensive. He said a single dose of Chinese vaccine CanSino—which staged clinical trials in Pakistan—was $13, or around Rs. 2,000. He said Pakistan was relying on international donors and friendly countries, like China, to secure its vaccines.
Khawaja, meanwhile, claimed that a survey conducted in June 2020 had found that around 15 percent of the population had developed antibodies and did not need to be vaccinated. This is misinformation; research shows that antibodies can start to reduce within 2-3 months, and there is no guarantee of long-term immunity without vaccination. He also stressed that people under 18 did not need to be vaccinated, claiming this would reduce the population requiring vaccinations.
Special Assistant to the P.M. on Health Dr. Faisal Sultan had earlier claimed that Pakistan only “needed” to vaccinate 70 percent of the country’s eligible population to achieve herd immunity. This comes to around 70 million people.
To a question, the NHS secretary said that the private sector had yet to procure any vaccines despite the government allowing them to set their own pricing—a development that has raised fears of price gouging. Khawaja said the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan had thus received only 3 applications for the import of vaccines, but they had all been rejected because they did not provide any details about which vaccines they intended to import.
The PAC also debated public reservations over side-effects of the vaccine, and advised the NHS secretary to have the country’s top leadership, including the prime minister, get vaccinated publicly to help ease the general public’s concerns.
Earlier, Parliamentary Health Secretary Dr. Nausheen Hamid had claimed the cabinet had approved “an initial” fund of $150 million to procure coronavirus vaccines. After the information provided to the PAC, it seems unlikely this fund would be utilized.