As many countries launch their drives to vaccinate their people against Covid-19, Pakistan, is yet to start vaccination of its citizen.
Under multiple pressures to show results, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government displayed considerable confusion. Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar said on January 17 that the federal government would not hold a monopoly on the import of coronavirus vaccines. He told a TV channel that that provinces and the private sector were free to import vaccines subject to approval of the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (Drap).
He said the Sindh Government could import AstraZeneca, the British vaccine. However, this involves large sums in hard currency. Who would pay and how was not explained.
When there is a scramble for vaccines that are made by a few but needed globally, the government has placed no import orders so far and was still looking around for what it thinks was “cost effective and best result oriented”.
Pakistan is apparently awaiting completion of trials of Cansino, a vaccine being developed by its “all-weather friend” China. It is yet to be cleared for use. But there is distrust for the Chinese vaccines, given past vaccine scandals after which its manufacturers have not clarified their positions.
Two million Chinese vaccines for children were found to be improperly stored before being sold in 2016. Brazil, the first to purchase the Chinese vaccines, reportedly found the Chinese vaccines against Covid ineffective and has added to the growing distrust. Experts say Chinese products may remain “poor nations’ vaccines” purchased (unless gifted by China) by those who cannot afford or procure Western vaccines.
The only ‘promise’ as of now is from an international coalition Covax that had announced that it would provide Pakistan 50 million free doses (for 20pc population). Where Pakistan stands in this global race is not clear.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan insists that the government has not delayed procurement. He told Dawn (January 16, 2021) that the vaccine would arrive by March, but could not indicate a likely timetable.
He said the government was ‘confident’ but was adopting a ‘look-before-you-leap’ strategy to ensure procurement of a medicine of the “highest efficacy.” He spoke on the day Corona cases in Pakistan crossed half-a-million (519,291) with 10,951 dead and 473,639 having recovered.
Assuming the vaccines would eventually arrive, there are slim prospect of their covering the entire affected population. The special assistant said although the country had a population of 200 million, 100 million were under the age of 18 years, and therefore would not be vaccinated.
“As 100pc population cannot be vaccinated in any country, we need to target 70pc of the vaccineable population, which is 70 million,” Dawn quoted him as saying.
Asked why Pakistan did not pre-book the vaccine, Dr Sultan said countries like United States, Canada and United Kingdom were investing in science for the last 100 years and would not allow pharmaceutical companies, registered there, to sell the vaccine until their requirements were fulfilled.
On the other hand, former health minister Saira Afzal Tarar was of the view that although announcements were made, but funds were not released.
In an editorial comment, the Friday Times (January 15, 2021) said: “….. Covid-19 and its mutants are rampaging; there is no end in sight to the misery of the populace; no vaccines have so far been ordered by the PTI government for 230 m Pakistanis in need; and there is no knowing when these will be available, at what cost and which chosen ones will get them first.”
Pakistan has had a chequered course since the pandemic began last year. The prime minister was against lockdown to arrest the spread and the army virtually overruled him by announcing its own schedule. Curbs on mass gatherings were announced. But the government succumbed to pressures from the conservatives and the Islamists who demanded the “right to worship” to throw open places of worship during the Ramadan.
These gatherings led to a surge in spread of the virus, but there were charges of official figures being concealed. Some foreign reports commending Pakistan’s early ‘success ‘appear to have led to complacence.
When it begins, the Covid-19 vaccine drive is intended to be clubbed with that of polio, but that has itself suffered over the years with medicos, paramedics and health workers being killed and driven away since sections of Muslim clergy have termed the polio vaccine as a “western conspiracy” that would render its recipient impotent. (Ends)