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India to send 20 lakh vaccines to Dhaka, Pak explores options

While India plans to send 20 lakh doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Bangladesh, another neighbour, Pakistan, is exploring options to get made-in-India vaccines, either through a global alliance for vaccines or through the bilateral route, The Indian Express has learnt.

On Monday, authorities in Bangladesh confirmed that on Wednesday, January 20, a specially equipped plane will carry 20 lakh doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine — manufactured in India by the Serum Institute of India under the name Covishield — to Dhaka. The consignment will be handed over to the Bangladesh government by the Indian High Commission in Dhaka. Bangladesh has had more than 5 lakh cases of Covid, with about 7,900 deaths so far.

Pakistan’s move to source Indian vaccines comes after the country’s drug regulator, the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP), over the weekend approved Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use. Pakistan has reported more than 5 lakh Covid cases and almost 11,000 deaths.

Sources said the thinking in Islamabad is that it can get the vaccine through Covax, an alliance set up by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and World Health Organisation. The alliance has pledged free vaccines for 20 per cent of the population of around 190 countries, including Pakistan. Pakistan expects to get the first consignment from Covax just after the start of the second quarter of 2021.

But, for the remaining population, Pakistan hopes, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as well as Bharat Biotech-ICMR’s Covaxin can be procured through bilateral arrangements. Alternatively, Pakistan can procure the India-made vaccines through a third country, but that may push up costs.

A source told The Indian Express that one of the vaccine manufacturers in India has over the last few weeks reached out to the Pakistan government on the supply of vaccines.

While tensions between India and Pakistan have impacted bilateral trade between the two countries, the supply of “life-saving medicines” is exempted from restrictions.

Bilateral trade between the two neighbours has almost come to a standstill — first after the Pulwama terror attack in February 2019 and later, after the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was withdrawn.

Sources in New Delhi said the Pakistan government has not yet formally approached the Indian government for the vaccines. Given the tensions, vaccine diplomacy could be key to unlocking the ties.

Pakistan officials said that over the weekend, they registered the AstraZeneca vaccine with DRAP since its efficacy is over 90 per cent.

Special Assistant to Pakistan Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan, who confirmed that DRAP had approved AstraZeneca, told Dawn, “We have registered the vaccine as its efficacy is over 90 per cent and will try to get it through alternative arrangements. What is more important is that it will enable us to acquire the vaccine through Covax as it cannot be allowed in the country without DRAP’s approval.”

With the Pakistan government announcing that it will provide vaccines “free-of-cost”, sources said the establishment prefers AstraZeneca and China’s Sinopharm to Pfizer and Moderna. Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine has a better efficacy than the Chinese vaccine, can be stored at a much higher temperature than Pfizer and is not very expensive.

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