As the richer nations engage in vaccine nationalism, many poorer countries are apprehensive about their prospects in the Covid-19 vaccination campaign. A convenient solution to this huge challenge of overcoming global 'Vaccine Divide' may lie in the vaccines produced by China and Russia.
The Western media has all along been reticent about these vaccines, as they appear to hold a preconceived notion that these are of lower quality compared to those produced by the US-German joint-venture Pfizer-BioNTech, the US firms Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, or the Oxford-AstraZeneca of Europe. But available statistics indicate the Chinese or Russian vaccines are no less effective than the Western ones. According to the findings published by medical journal 'The Lancet', the Russian Sputnik-V has an efficacy of 91.6 per cent, even better than the Pfizer variety (91.3 per cent). And the vaccines manufactured by the Chinese firms Sinopharm and Sinovac were found to be 86 per cent and 79 per cent effective respectively, higher than the Oxford or J&J varieties. Besides, questions have been raised about the side-effects of Oxford and J & J vaccines (including blood clots), and some countries have already restricted their application.
The WHO says, vaccines work by training and preparing the body's natural defences - the immune system - to recognise and fight the viruses and bacteria they target. If the body is exposed to the disease-causing germs after vaccination, it is then immediately ready to destroy them, thereby preventing illness. As of March 2021, at least seven Covid-19 vaccines have been rolled out in different countries. Furthermore, more than 200 vaccine candidates were being developed with over 60 in the clinical development phase.
The WHO Director General has recently condemned the global vaccine-divide, claiming that low income nations are currently getting even less than 1.0 per cent of the global supply. And as of 24 April, USA (22.5 per cent), China (21.5 per cent) and India (14 per cent) accounted for about 58 per cent of all vaccinations.
As for Bangladesh, a contract was signed with the Serum Institute of India on behalf of Bangladeshi stakeholders last November for purchasing 30 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca (Covishield) vaccines. The country received the first five million doses in January in accordance with the contract.
Although the Indian institute was supposed to supply five million doses per month as per contract, it has refrained from doing so after supplying two million doses in February. Lastly, the Indian government announced a temporary ban on the export of Covishield on 25 March in a move that not only jeopardised global vaccine supply but also delivered a lethal blow to India's much vaunted 'Vaccine Friendship' policy. It seems, Vaccine Nationalism has replaced 'Vaccine Moitree' in India, as is the case in many Western nations. Time has therefore come for countries like Bangladesh to look for other options like the Chinese or Russian alternatives.
According to media reports, the vaccine produced by Sinopharm of China has already been approved by many countries like the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Serbia, Morocco, Hungary and Pakistan. On the other hand, the other prominent Chinese vaccine manufactured by Sinovac has also been approved by South American nations like Bolivia, Brazil and Chile, as well as Asia's Indonesia and Turkey. Besides, the Russian vaccine Sputnik-V has been approved by a number of countries in Europe, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. These vaccine approvals were given based on hard evidences, solid proofs, and cross-checking of information provided by manufacturers. And most of the data were obtained through independent testing and published in science journals.
It may be recalled that China and India were competing to deliver coronavirus vaccines to Bangladesh during the second half of last year. The August visit of the Indian foreign secretary to Dhaka was interpreted by many as an attempt at vaccine diplomacy, which laid the ground for the deal between Beximco of Bangladesh and Serum Institute of India.
On the other hand, the Chinese firm Sinovac sought to conduct a stage-3 clinical trial of their CoronaVac vaccine in July-August last year through partnership with ICDDR-B. The trial was expected to start "with the supply of bulk vaccine and transfer of relevant technology and know-how to meet the needs of the larger population of Bangladesh", Nikkei Asia had reported in September.
But the vaccine joint-venture with China fell through even before it could start, and instead Indian vaccine diplomacy appeared to win the race through subsequent signing of contract. The health minister of Bangladesh was also quoted as saying at that juncture that Russia had shown interest in providing Sputnik-V vaccine with government support for local manufacturing, provided companies were capable of producing it.
However, it now seems Bangladesh has 'lost both the mango and the bag'. More ominously, even after adding the over three million vaccine doses India sent to Bangladesh as gift, the current stock of Covishield in the country is not even sufficient to administer the second dose of the vaccine to all Bangladeshis who took the first dose. Bangladesh can now seek US help for resolving the issue, which has offered 60 million Oxford vaccines for sharing with other countries.
In contrast to Western countries, China's anti-Covid-19 vaccine campaign seems to have been a surprising success because it is implementing a slow internal roll-out of vaccines while sending 60 per cent of the Sinovac and Sinopharm varieties as aid to 53 countries, and as export items to 27 others. Also, four Chinese vaccine producers claim they are capable of producing 2.6 billion doses in a year. More importantly, China has targeted the low and middle-income countries left behind in the race because of vaccine nationalism. Both Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are comparatively safer, as they rely on traditional technology and can be stored in standard refrigerators.
The Bangladesh government should now shrug off its previous hesitation or procrastination, and urgently carry forward the recent initiative to procure Chinese and Russian vaccines without further delay. Time is of essence, and putting all eggs in one basket cannot be wise in the long run.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.