Nepal’s vaccine woes continue as EU rules out plan to provide jabs directlyAt least two diplomats say Nepal will get Covid-19 shots only through COVAX, which itself is struggling to secure doses.
Nepal’s vaccine woes do not appear to be ending anytime soon, unless the international vaccine-sharing scheme, known as the COVAX facility, ensures enough doses. It has become apparent now that European countries are not going to provide Covid-19 vaccines to Nepal directly, as they say they are sticking to their plan to share the jabs through COVAX.
At least two diplomats of the European Union and Germany on Thursday indicated that Nepal would not get vaccines through bilateral mechanisms. Nepal has requested the European Union as well as Denmark separately to supply vaccines, including the AstraZeneca type.
Failure to acquire AstraZeneca vaccines immediately would mean depriving those 1.4 million people above 65 years of their second shots on time.
The government had requested the European Union and Denmark separately to supply the AstraZeneca vaccines so that the 1.4 million elderly could get their second shots. They took their first shots of Covishield, the AstraZeneca type vaccine, between March 7 and March 15.
“The general policy of the EU is to provide Covid-19 vaccines only through the COVAX mechanism,” Nona Deprez, EU Ambassador to Nepal, told a group of journalists at Kathmandu on Thursday, in an indication that contribution to individual countries is very unlikely.
“Team Europe aims to donate at least 100 million more doses of vaccine to low- and middle-income countries, mainly through COVAX by the end of this year. This will benefit Nepal too.”
Nepal so far has received 348,000 doses of Covishiled under COVAX. This is out of the facility’s total commitment for around 13 million doses. An additional 348,000 doses are expected to arrive by July.
There, however, is no word on the rest of the commitment.
Nepal so far has used Covishield and Chinese Sinopharm’s BBIBP-CorV to inoculate its population.
After receiving 1.8 million doses of the Chinese vaccine under a grant assistance, Nepal is set to buy 4 million doses from Sinopharm.
Nepal needs to inoculate 72 percent of the 30 million population (around 22 million people) against the coronavirus, which has hit the country hard. COVAX has committed to providing 13 million doses, enough to inoculate 20 percent of the population (6 million people).
But with no solution to the ongoing vaccine crisis in sight, the government is scrambling to buy vaccines from wherever it can. So far, Nepal has inoculated 2.43 million people with the first dose, while 691,494 people have received both doses as of Thursday, according to the Ministry of Health and Population.
Nepal has been looking to the United Kingdom and the United States as well for vaccines. The United Kingdom too has not said anything as of now about supplying vaccines to Nepal, except making it clear on more than one occasion that vaccines to Nepal would be provided under COVAX.
Earlier this month, the United States said it would share 7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to 17 countries and territories, including Nepal. It is not clear how many doses Nepal would receive and when.
Rich countries like the UK and the US as well as the European Union have lately faced global criticism for sitting on stockpiles of vaccines and refusing to share them with the poor countries.
Last month, the BBC reported that some areas had over-ordered vaccines, even taking into account single- and double-dose jabs. According to the BBC, the EU’s order stood at 1.8 billion doses, 2.5 times its population, the US order stood at 1.2 billion doses, 2 times its population and the UK’s order stood at 124 million doses, 2.5 times its population.
Amid charges that these countries are sitting on stockpiles of vaccines, the UN children’s agency UNICEF, which buys and distributes vaccines for COVAX, urged the EU and G7 nations to share their doses.
Deprez, however, said the allegations that the EU is sitting on stockpiles of vaccine was baseless, arguing that manufacturers like AstraZeneca have not supplied the committed doses.
After Nepal’s coronavirus second wave slid into a devastating crisis, European countries, the UK and the US sprung into action and flew medical supplies. While their gesture was welcomed, Nepalis wondered if they would be sharing vaccines, which the country needs the most.
Deprez, the EU ambassador to Nepal, said that the EU has a policy of providing the vaccines only through the COVAX facility, as “it is a fair mechanism for Nepal and the whole world”.
German Ambassador Roland Schafer too insisted that it would be good for countries like Nepal to receive vaccines through a multilateral mechanism like COVAX. He also called the facility a fair mechanism.
“Nepal should, however, better prepare its data to be provided to COVAX,” said Schafer. He would not elaborate. Data discrepancy in Nepal, however, remains a problem, and the numbers provided by the government often may make it difficult for donor countries and organisations to see the actual threat the country faces.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli himself had made a wild claim in an interview with CNN that Nepal’s coronavirus “situation is under control”. The statement in early May came at a time when the second wave was at its peak—hospitals were turning away patients for a lack of beds, ventilators and oxygen, and funeral pyres were lighting up the sky.
He, however, made amends two days later, by writing an opinion piece in the Guardian, explaining why Nepal is in a desperate need for support from the international community, with not only medical supplies but also vaccines.
Government officials claim that they have activated all diplomatic channels to acquire vaccines, but there have been no tangible results as of now. Officials say they have been working to acquire Sputnik V from Russia too. But there has been no word on that front as well.
Even President Bidya Devi Bhandari had written to her counterparts in India and the United States as well as Queen Elizabeth, requesting to facilitate the supply of vaccines to Nepal. Neither responses nor vaccines have arrived.
Now with the European Union too ruling out vaccines to Nepal through any bilateral mechanism, COVAX is the only hope for Nepal. But the facility, backed by the United Nations, itself is in crisis, especially after India put a hold on exports of the AstraZeneca vaccines, citing rising demand at home in the wake of the crisis it faced in the second coronavirus wave.
Officials say there has been no communication from COVAX after it communicated to the Health Ministry in the third week of May about delays in vaccine supply.
“COVAX has told us that they would soon send details about how many doses Nepal would receive in June,” Dr Tara Nath Pokharel, director at the Family Welfare Division under the Ministry of Health, told the Post.
On Thursday, the EU and German ambassadors also indicated that Nepal would soon receive a portion of vaccines under COVAX.
In its last communication, the COVAX facility had also asked Nepal to choose vaccines other than AstraZeneca. The options include Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.
Officials say Nepal is ready to receive any vaccine it gets from anywhere, but the country immediately needs 1.4 million doses of AstraZeneca jabs.
Amid uncertainty over acquiring the AstraZeneca vaccine, the National Immunization Committee had recommended increasing the gap from 8-12 weeks to beyond 12 weeks.
The 1.4 million people who took their first shots should have taken their second shots between May 16 and May 19.
“But there is no certainty when the AstraZeneca vaccines will arrive,” said Pokhrel of the Health Ministry. “Efforts are underway to get the vaccines at the earliest. We will administer the second shots to the elderly whenever they are available.”