Vaccinating outbound workers with China-made Vero Cell shots adds to complication, officials sayThe vaccine, which is developed by China’s Sinopharm, is not recognised by most labour destination countries.
The woes of tens of thousands of Nepali job seekers whose travel and job plans have been relying on Covid-19 vaccination are not over yet.
As the labour destination countries have made Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for foreigners, Nepali migrant workers’ hopes of going abroad for employment have been dashed.
Migrant workers’ rights activists and groups have called the policy discriminatory against foreign job aspirants and asked the source and destination countries to either vaccinate the incoming workers or scrap the policy altogether.
Following the adoption of mandatory vaccination rules by labour destination countries, there was a growing demand to prioritise migrant workers for vaccination as they are on the brink of losing their jobs and livelihoods.
The government subsequently decided to provide vaccines to migrant workers.
A much-needed move to vaccinate migrant workers, however, is only a half battle won. It has to do with the vaccine allotted by the government for migrant workers.
The government’s decision to administer the Vero Cell vaccine developed by China’s Sinopharm is not the right choice of vaccine for migrant workers, stakeholders say.
If anything, the vaccine choice has added to the complication.
“Providing Covid-19 vaccines to outgoing migrants was necessary. But now there is a new problem,” said Sujit Kumar Shrestha, general secretary of Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA), an umbrella organisation of privately-run recruiting agencies hiring and supplying Nepali migrant workers to foreign employers. “Providing the Vero Cell vaccine to outbound migrants will instead make things complicated for migrant workers since the vaccine has not been recognised by labour destination countries.”
With the arrival of vaccines from countries like China and the USA, the Nepal government included migrant workers among the groups to be vaccinated from Tuesday.
According to the decision, the Vero Cell vaccine will be administered to migrant workers alongside people above 55 years, staff members of schools and colleges, transport workers, and those working in sectors defined as essential services by the government.
But most labour destination countries have approved the vaccines developed by Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca—and not Sinopharm.
A little over 1.5 million doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which the United States provided through the UN-backed COVAX facility, landed in Kathmandu on July 12.
The vaccine is being administered to the people of 50-54 years age group, disabled persons, refugees living in Nepal, and health officials and sanitation workers at health facilities.
Earlier, there were discussions of providing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to aspiring migrant workers. But the government ultimately decided to vaccinate them with the Chinese jab.
Following the decision, the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security on Monday wrote to the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) to inoculate outbound migrant workers with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“There seems to be a lack of coordination among government officials. The Health Ministry has said migrant workers should be given Vero Cell shots while the Labour Ministry is asking for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is recognised by most labour destination countries,” said Shrestha, the general secretary of NAFEA.
“Even our association has written to the government to provide the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to outbound migrant workers instead of the Chinese Vero Cell.”
Progressive Forum of Foreign Employment Agencies, Nepal, another group of recruiting agencies, has also requested the government to provide the single-dose vaccine to Nepali migrant workers.
Dr Samir Adhikari, joint spokesperson at the Ministry of Health and Population, told the Post that the vaccine choice concerning migrant workers could be reviewed by the technical committee that took the decision.
“The technical committee on vaccination made the decision regarding the vaccine for migrant workers after a thorough discussion. The decision can be reviewed if the committee feels the need,” said Adhikari. “However, there will be a big question on how to vaccinate migrant workers with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in future since the number of doses is limited.”
Adhikari also said that he was unaware of the letter sent by the Labour Ministry concerning the vaccine for migrant workers.
Dipak Kafle, spokesperson at the Labour Ministry, said the correspondence was made at the secretary level.
“It looks like that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be more appropriate for workers going on foreign employment,” Kafle, the joint secretary, told the Post. “Nepali students, diplomats and those with work visas could be given the single-dose vaccine also because this vaccine is recognised by most countries.”
Kafle added that a secretary-level discussion has taken place on the matter. No decision had been taken by the time of filing this story.
Different labour destination countries in the Persian Gulf have approved different vaccines against Covid-19, but only a handful have recognised Vero Cell.
Saudi Arabia, a major labour destination for Nepali migrant workers, in its updated travel guidelines, has said that all guests must obtain and show proof of vaccination (vaccine certificates for Covid-19) with one of the approved vaccines by Pfizer BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson. It excludes Sinopharm’s Vero Cell.
Kuwait, which has already declared that it would not allow unvaccinated outsiders from August 1, will allow entry to those who have received vaccines produced by Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. It, too, has not approved the vaccine produced by Sinopharm.
Another labour destination in the region, Oman, is administering Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines. It has not approved Vero Cell.
“Nepal’s major destination countries have mainly approved European and American vaccines,” said Shrestha. “Therefore, providing them with the Janssen vaccine by Johnson & Johnson would be the best choice.”
Qatar, which has made institutional quarantine mandatory for the unvaccinated, has, however, enlisted the Sinopharm vaccine as conditionally-approved vaccines alongside those developed by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
The United Arab Emirates, which has allowed limited entry to vaccinated foreigners, has also approved four vaccines, including those by Sinopharm, Pfizer-BioNTech, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute, and Oxford-AstraZeneca.
Bahrain also offers four types of vaccines including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Sinopharm and the one produced by Gamaleya Research Institute.
It is noteworthy though that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have not approved the single-dose Janssen vaccine by Johnson & Johnson.
The Nepal government’s plan to give migrant workers the Vero Cell shots, which most labour destination countries have not approved, also has other drawbacks.
As per the rules in labour destination countries, outsiders must have received both doses of Covid-19 vaccines and have completed a 14-day stay in their home country after getting the second dose before arrival.
Considering the poor availability of vaccines in Nepal and the long wait required to receive both doses, workers are likely to spend a long time waiting for their booster shot, which could lead to cancellation of their visas.
“There is a strong chance that by the time they receive both doses of the vaccine, their work visa would have expired. This is another complication if Vero Cell shots are given to migrant workers,” said Shrestha.
With the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Shrestha said workers could take the one-time jab, rest in Nepal for 14 days and fly to labour destination countries.
“There is no such luxury with the Vero Cell shots. Workers, who are already stuck in the country due to vaccination issues, will have to wait much longer to get both doses of the Chinese vaccine,” added Shrestha.
According to the NAFEA’s record, demand for nearly 98,000 workers has arrived from various labour destination countries and aspiring migrant workers are getting their work visas.
However, they have not been able to fly due to ongoing restrictions, including on the vaccine type, enforced by destination countries, said Shrestha.
“Once the workers are granted their visas, they are expected to reach the labour destination countries within a month. Otherwise, their visas and job contracts will be terminated. The employers cannot wait for them for a long time,” said Shrestha
The Labour Ministry official said they are hopeful that the government would reconsider the vaccine choice for migrant workers.
“We have written to the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre after the Department of Foreign Employment brought the matter to our notice. However, we cannot make the final decision as the Labour Ministry is not the agency mandated to do that,” said Kafle, the spokesperson for the ministry. “Our point is that if there is a single-shot vaccine available and can be given to migrant workers, then it would be better if they are inoculated with that kind of vaccine.”