A special chartered flight arrived at the Paro International Airport with 500,000 doses of Moderna vaccine that the US government gifted through the COVAX facility

The story behind how Bhutan got its vaccines for the second dose

When it became increasingly clear that Bhutan’s second dose from India was in doubt due to a massive second wave there and politicization of vaccine exports, the going did not look good for Bhutan.

Bhutan’s diplomatic muscle only consisted of diplomatic relations with 54 countries and the European Union, none of which included the Permanent Five members of the Security Council, including the USA, which was the powerhouse of vaccine production.

Bhutan also has embassies and missions only in seven countries and a limited number of diplomatic staff.

This was in the backdrop of a massive international competition even among developed countries for vaccines due to a general vaccine shortage and vaccines could not be had for love or money.

However, from a time period when it was unsure about its second dose, Bhutan is now turning away offers from countries for more vaccines asking them to give it to others who need it more.

Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that when it came to vaccines His Majesty’s instructions were very clear early in the outbreak and so the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) formed a team in April 2020 to keep abreast of the developments on the vaccine front.

The minister said that His Majesty’s command that Bhutan should do everything to get vaccines was an important assurance and backing for the MFA and so the MFA told all its missions and embassies and diplomatic staff in other countries to give number one priority to getting the second dose vaccines for Bhutan.

The embassies and mission not only got in touch with the political leadership of countries but also vaccine companies and influential people in the vaccine business.

He said that His Majesty’s assurance was also important in another respect which is Bhutan assuring possible donor countries that it would take care of all the logistic including flying in planes to pick up the vaccines.

Lyonpo pointed out that there were many countries that were also asking vaccines but they expected the donor countries to take care of the logistics and deliver it to them.

This offer to take care of transport and logistics by Bhutan gave it an important edge in the global vaccine race.

The vaccine group within the MFA, apart from keeping a close tab on the development of vaccines and how to access them, also closely coordinated with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Ministry of Health.

The Foreign Minister said that Bhutan not only approached around 20 plus countries for vaccines, but it also used the various friendship associations, the vaccine companies like Pfizer and Moderna, well wishers of Bhutan, Bhutanese abroad, people who had visited Bhutan and even strangers who gave some suggestions on who to approach.

Lyonpo said that the connections and links of Royal family members were also important in this outreach.

Lyonpo said that Bhutan’s Ambassador to India, Major General V. Namgyel also gave important advice on which countries to approach and which countries are likely to help.

The MoH also played an important role on the technical front as it was in constant touch with WHO, UNICEF and vaccine companies with whom the MoH had several virtual meetings.

Lyonpo said that the MFA did not want to publicize these efforts and make announcements as the donor countries were also under pressure with requests from multiple countries for vaccines.

The minister said that Bhutan is very grateful to all of the above countries, agencies and other partners.

He said that Bhutan is still getting offers for vaccines from countries like Canada and Japan where their internal process takes time and here Bhutan while expressing gratitude has asked them to send these stocks to other countries who need it more.

At the same time Bhutan has already asked certain countries and companies to keep it in consideration for a possible third booster dose.

USA

Bhutan received the maximum doses for the second dose from United States of America (USA) with 500,000 Moderna mRNA vaccines.

Here, Lyonpo said the MFA wrote to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  MFA also wrote to few influential Senator and Lawmakers friendly to Bhutan. Some businessmen and Honorary Consuls of Bhutan in the USA were also contacted and were asked to use whatever connections they have with the US Government. 

Bhutan’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations led by Ambassador Doma Tshering met her counterparts and contacted the relevant officials looking at the South Asia region and also Bhutan in the State Department to put in request for the vaccines.

The MoH Minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo got in touch with the US Ambassador in Geneva during her visit there for the vaccines.

Apart from the above, Bhutan was one of the first countries to approach the USA for its additional stockpiles of vaccines long before the USA even announced it would give vaccines.

While working on the political and diplomatic side, Bhutan also worked on the technical and commercial side.

Bhutan got in touch directly with the Moderna company and agreed to scientific exchange and sharing data with Moderna on the mixed mode vaccinations that would be carried out in Bhutan.

Lyonpo said that Bhutan has already been gathering data on antibodies reactions to the first dose AstraZeneca vaccines and similar data from the Moderna second dose would be shared with the company.

This assurance brought Moderna on board which is important because the US government also has to consult vaccine companies before exporting out doses. Moderna also agreed to help Bhutan with some technical support.

It may not be a matter of coincidence that around the same time while Nepal got 1.5 mn doses of the J&J vaccine Bhutan got 500,000 doses of Moderna.

Lyonpo said that the US government then very generously decided to give the 500,000 doses to Bhutan free of cost.

The Moderna link will be important for Bhutan in the future too as it has already applied for clearance from FDA to use the vaccines in children from 17 to 12 which is expected to come soon, and it is currently doing trials on the use of the vaccine for children from 6 months to under 12 years. The results of this are expected to come by September.

Moderna will also be kept in mind as part of the third booster dose which may be given next year.

Denmark and EU

The second biggest consignment of vaccines are 250,000 AstraZeneca doses from Denmark.

The MFA team had been keeping tabs on the vaccines and when many EU countries stopped using AstraZeneca doses for a while, and then Bhutan started contacting them.

In the case of Denmark Bhutan’s Ambassadors in Brussel and Geneva got into action. Bhutan’s Ambassador in India got in touch with the Danish Ambassador in Delhi who gave important advice on whom to approach and how to approach in the Danish government.

Bhutan’s Ambassador in New York also got in touch with the Danish Ambassador in USA.

Bhutan also contacted Denmark’s Development Minister and Foreign Minister.

Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji said that what helped also is that Denmark has a strong friendship association which included some very senior Danish people and they along with Bhutanese living in Denmark lobbied Bhutan’s cause.

The members of this friendship association wrote to their MPs as the Parliament would make the final decision.

Bhutan also approached the several agencies that would be consulted before Parliament took a decision.

The MFA team kept tabs on which countries stopped using the AZ vaccine, how much stocks they had and it also kept tabs on where the vaccines were being manufactured and how much were left over for possible purchase.

Diplomats and Bhutanese officials followed up on all of this.

This MFA team included the foreign secretary, director bilateral and a couple of senior MFA officials who had done a lot of reading on vaccines for a while and in the minister’s words were as qualified as the experts. This team met often and gave weekly updates. It identified who to contact and identified new players.

When Bhutan started approaching individual EU countries like Norway, Sweden, Switzerland for their excess vaccines they informed saying that it is better to go via the EU which will take the final call on who will get the vaccines.

The minister said that fortunately for Bhutan it had some strong friends in the EU which asked its member countries to look at Bhutan’s request.

This is when countries like Croatia and Bulgaria and others came forward with the 100,000 plus doses.

Lyonpo said that the Royal Family contacts here also came into help and on their advice letters were written to some key people in Croatia, Bulgaria and France.

The EU countries were told that Bhutan had successfully completed its first dose and now needed vaccines for the second dose.

Bhutan even said it would accept vaccines with a two-week date before expiry as the rollout in Bhutan would be done within a week.

Countries were also told that Bhutan would arrange for the travel and logistic of the vaccines.

Indian support

The Foreign Minister said that when the Indian Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar traveled to USA he along with India’s request for vaccines also mentioned that of Bhutan.

India also helped Bhutan to get in touch with Pfizer.

The Foreign Minister said the sense he got was that India was concerned for Bhutan and he got a sense of obligation from their side to speak up for Bhutan as they could not give the second dose.

He said that Indian officials then felt that they had to help Bhutan to get vaccines for the second dose from other sources while requesting for themselves too.

Lyonpo Dr Tandi said the Ministry of External Affairs in India has been very helpful.

Lyonpo said that if all failed the Indian side had given assurances that they would send vaccines by the 16th or  20th week for the second dose.

Bhutan on its part did not want to burden India which had its own huge domestic requirements and a greater need for the vaccine.

China

A surprise announcement in the list of vaccine donors was 50,000 Sinopharm vaccines from China.

Here the foreign minister said that though Bhutan had not approached China, the Chinese side voluntarily offered the vaccines to Bhutan which the country accepted.

China offered to send even more vaccines but since Bhutan already had enough vaccines, it did not require them.

Another factor limiting Bhutan’s acceptance of Chinese vaccines was that there was no data yet on using Sinopharm after an AstraZeneca shot.

As per a press release from the PMO on Friday Bhutanese who have not been vaccinated have the option of taking either the AstraZeneca, Moderna or the Sinopharm vaccine as the first dose.

Bhutan’s Image and Foreign Policy

The Foreign Minister said that Bhutan’s positive success story and the commitment of His Majesty The King travelling in all conditions to keep the country safe shed a very good light on Bhutan within the EU.

Lyonpo said that what also helped was that even in terms of aid, Bhutan is known to use it very efficiently with no wastage.

Lyonpo Dr Tandi said that as His Majesty The Fourth King has shown it is not important to have quantity of ties but it is more important to have quality diplomatic ties where Bhutan can fulfill its obligations and engage in meaningful relations and where they can learn from each other.

The minister said that one can now see that it is more important to have meaningful ties. He said it is due to Bhutan’s ties with these countries that Bhutan has been able to reach where it has reached with their kind assistance and cooperation.

Lyonpo said that a factor that really helped tremendously was a lot of goodwill for Bhutan, His Majesty’s reputation and what Bhutan has achieved till now under the focused attention and guidance of His Majesty.

Lyonpo said that Bhutan does not go around begging for everything and it is in fact very careful about accepting funds and taking only what it can make use of.  So when Bhutan did reach out for help the countries knew it was important.

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