Bhutan explores the world for vaccines as India indicates delay for second dose

Meanwhile sample survey in Bhutan shows 95% have developed antibodies after the first dose

The plan in Bhutan is to have the second dose eight or twelve weeks after the first dose. However, now even the maximum planned gap of 12 weeks which ends by the end the June looks uncertain.

This is because Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry was informed by its Indian counterparts that it is going to be difficult with the vaccines as it is under a lot of pressure to meet its own pressing domestic needs for the Covishield vaccine.

The Indian side even asked the Foreign Ministry if Bhutan can extend the second dose gap to 16 weeks instead of 12 weeks.

Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that the Indian government is already facing a lot of criticism for having exported vaccines and the issue has also been politicized in India. He said the Indian government has said they will see and they genuinely want to give the vaccines but they also have their own needs and so there might be some delays.

Meanwhile, a news article in Reuters quoted three unnamed Indian officials saying that it would be unlikely that India can exports vaccines until October 2021 as they would have to divert shots for their own domestic needs. They said that given India’s case tally India’s own vaccination drive would take priority.

The officials said that they don’t have to inform all countries as they are not obligated but they have informed some countries not to expect export commitments.

The sources said the exact timing for resuming exports could change depending on how soon India is able to control the second wave of cases that has overwhelmed the health system.

In the same article the Serum Institute of India (SII) said that it hoped to restart deliveries to COVAX and other countries by the end of this year.

SII said it remains committed to do everything it can in the support of the vaccination drive in India.

With the supply of vaccines from India for a second dose looking like it will get delayed or is uncertain, Bhutan has been in touch other countries and organizations for the second dose.

The Foreign Minister said that Bhutan already put in a request with President Joe Biden’s administration two months ago when USA said it had an excess of 60 million AstraZeneca doses.

Lyonpo said the USA is looking at Bhutan’s request seriously but at the moment the FDA is yet to give approval to the vaccines for export. Lyonpo said that USA was told that Bhutan had a very successful first round and it would be crucial to secure the vaccines for a second dose for Bhutan to be able to go forward.

USA had already given 2.5 mn doses to Canada and 1.5 mn doses to Mexico.

Lyonpo said Bhutan has put in a request for half a million doses.

Ironically, Bhutan will be competing with India for the AstraZeneca doses from USA as Indian is lobbying to get the largest share of 35 percent of the 60 mn doses.

Meanwhile, this paper has learnt that US Embassy Charge d’affaires Daniel Smith in an informal talk with Indian journalists mentioned the request made by Bhutan and Bhutan’s concern on the second dose given the situation in India.

Daniel Smith said the USA is looking to try and make up the shortfalls that such countries will have to undergo with the second dose, due to the situation in India.

Bhutan has also approached Canada for its surplus doses and Canada has taken note and is considering it though their policy is to give it only to the COVAX facility so far.

Apart from that, Bhutan has also approached the European Union for the doses. In addition to that Bhutan as approached countries like Norway and Denmark who are not using the AstraZeneca vaccines. They have not responded yet as many countries have also placed requests with them.

Lyonpo said that in all the above cases Bhutan was not asking the vaccines for free but was offering to pay.

One worry is that USA and the others may also decide to give their entire vaccine stock to the COVAX facility.

The other option for Bhutan is the COVAX facility but here Bhutan will only get 108,000 doses which are not enough.

Lyonpo said Bhutan has already ordered for 200,000 doses of Pfizer but that will come in only by the end of 2021 and this would be used to vaccinate the younger population.

The minister said the first dose vaccines have been effective as a survey has showed that it produced antibodies in around 95% of a sampled group.

He said that in the current outbreak in Phuentsholing there were multiple clusters in Amochu, Pasakha, Hotel Quarantines, MDP and also cases in Samtse in Samdrupjongkhar.

Lyonpo said they were expecting thousands of cases with so many clusters but the vaccinations helped in curbing the spread and also ensured that people did not turn serious.

The Prime Minister Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering in an evening address said that India had assured support (in the past) but at the same time His Majesty said that India is a reliable friend and will give the second dose if asked, but given India’s greater need to save lives , Bhutan should not pressure it. He said Bhutan is approaching other countries too for its second dose.

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