A few thousand vials of AstraZeneca vaccine will be expiring by the end of October this year. This is one of the reasons for discontinuing the COVID-19 vaccination for the walk-in eligible individuals. The other reasons being that Bhutan will not buy the AstraZeneca vaccine, as most of the eligible and consenting population have been vaccinated, and also considering the logistic challenges related to bringing in the vaccine.
A member of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NI-TAG), Dr Sonam Wangchuk, said assuming that all the eligible population is fully vaccinated, and if there are some more left then these groups would have come by now. So this is one of the reasons for discontinuing the COVID-19 vaccination.
Dr Sonam Wangchuk shared that earlier many pregnant mothers, lactating mothers and few others who have not taken vaccines were not confident to get COVID-19 vaccines, but now the vaccines for these groups are being rolled out worldwide, so if they really wanted to take vaccines, they should have come.
Keeping the vaccines open anytime causes some logistics, wastage and operation issues. And it has been more than a year since the vaccines were rolled out in the country, and therefore, it is assumed that those wanting the vaccines should have received them by now.
The health ministry would, however, continue to administer COVID-19 vaccines for children, as and when they turn 12 years. The vaccine will also be given to all those who enter the country with no or partial vaccination.
The second dose for children 12 years to 17 years will be rolled out by the end of October, provided that the government can procure the Moderna vaccines. The government has decided to provide Moderna vaccine for those who received Moderna vaccine as their first dose. That is why the second dose for children was postponed, and as per WHO, a second dose can be provided in 12 weeks intervals after their first dose. The government has already initiated the procurement, said Dr Sonam Wangchuk.
The NI-TAG team recommends providing vaccines to those children who turn 12 years, and a second dose in a cohort similar to the campaign mode.
Dr Sonam Wangchuk also said that Pfizer vaccines will be saved, so that if there is an approval to vaccinate children from 5 years to 11 years of age, or as and when the international and national regulatory bodies approve the vaccines for children 11 years and below it will be ready. The Pfizer vaccines in stock in Bhutan are to expire after six months. So by then, if there is an approval to vaccinate children, the government will provide them.
Otherwise the government will think giving the Pfizer vaccines as booster dose to people in the high-risk groups, with medical conditions and the frontliners.
Dr Sonam Wangchuk said, “We are considering it now but it is not a priority. Our priority is children.”
Currently, Bhutan has approximately 150,000 Pfizer vaccines in stock.
It has approximately 10,000 plus AstraZeneca, which will be expiring by the end of this month.
He shared the challenges in procuring COVID-19 vaccines. Bhutan cannot procure Moderna vaccines till the end of 2025, as it is being pre-booked. Pfizer vaccines are also booked but Bhutan is expecting that after vaccinating all eligible population, there may be only few heads to vaccinate, and hopefully, Bhutan may be able to manage to vaccinate the new eligible population.
Dr Sonam Wangchuk said discontinuing the COVID-19 vaccine will not have a huge impact. From the public point of view, if there is a COVID-19 outbreak, the unvaccinated people may suffer from severity and hospitalization.
As for the herd immunity, Bhutan has set a target to 80 percent, but it all depends, said Dr Sonam Wangchuk, as there is no particular number to say that a certain percent is needed to achieve herd immunity. The overall vaccine coverage will be updated once all the 12 years to 17 years children are given with their second dose. There are around 50,000 children left to be given the second dose.