Vaccines start trickling into Nepal

Much-delayed vaccine supplies to Nepal appear to be picking up after another lot of Chinese Sinopharm vaccines arrived in Kathmandu on Friday, and assurances that the country will get additional doses through the COVAX facility in the coming weeks.

In a government-to-government deal, Nepal ordered 4 million doses of Sinopharm’s VeroCell vaccines, which will be enough to inoculate an additional 2 million Nepalis. The first shipment of 800,000 doses was flown in by Nepal Airlines from Beijing on Friday.

The United States has confirmed that it is working on the legal and logistical aspects of sending 1.5 million doses of its single-jab Johnson & Johnson vaccine to Nepal under the COVAX initiative. 

The British Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad in a written response to House of Commons MP Sir John Hayes on 30 June said that Britain would be sending more vaccines through COVAX by next month.

‘COVAX has allocated 2,000,000 vaccine doses to Nepal, of which 348,000 have already been delivered and we understand another tranche will arrive by August,” Lord Ahmad’s letter, which was made available to Nepali Times, states.

However, it is not clear if the additional COVAX vaccines are the ones already pledged by the Americans, and if it is another lot how many doses of what kind of vaccines are involved. The Ministry of Health has said another 348,000 vaccines are coming through COVAX by August. 

This fact is critical for the nearly 1.4 million Nepalis above 65 years who got their first doses of AstraZeneca more than 12 weeks ago, and their second doses are overdue. The elderly were inoculated first with Covishield AstraZeneca manufactured by Serum Institute India of which Nepal got 1 million doses as initial grant from India and then purchased another 2 million of which only 1 million were delivered before New Delhi banned vaccine exports.

Less than 3% of Nepalis have so far received both doses of Covishield or VeroCell, and another 2.6 million have got both shots. Nepal needs to inoculate at least 22 million of its eligible population. COVAX had originally promised 13 million doses of Covishield to inoculate 20% of Nepal’s population.

The American announcement of 1.5 million J&J doses are a part of the 7 million pledged by President Joe Biden to South Asian countries last month, of the 1 billion doses from the G-7 promised at a summit in the UK last month.

‘The majority of the doses will go through COVAX,” Lord Ahmad says in his letter. ‘In addition, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (both partially UK-funded) have made available significant funding to enable the Government of Nepal to purchase vaccines. This financing together with COVAX supplies can vaccinate 70% of the population of Nepal.’

Indeed, the World Bank has provided Nepal with a $100 million loan, and an additional $160 million from the ADB for vaccine procurement. World Bank country director Faris Hadad-Zervos told reporters in Kathmandu on Thursday that Nepal may have to wait a long time to get vaccines as grants through COVAX, and it might be a better idea to buy them.

The EU had negotiated with vaccine manufacturers to provide 1.2 billion vaccines at cost to low income countries through COVAX. The EU has exported 340 million doses of vaccines, half its production, to countries around the world.

Head of the EU Delegation to Nepal Nona Deprez says the EU is not sitting on a big stockpile of vaccines at the moment, and has not been blocking individual member states from having direct vaccine deals with countries like Nepal.

A group of European, Nepali and Bhutanese personalities had written an open letter to the European Commission president this week demanding that countries be allowed to send surplus vaccines directly to countries without having to go through Brussels and COVAX.

“Nepal is very much on our radar, and direct vaccine supply depends very much on individual member states who are owners of the vaccines,” Deprez told Nepali Times. “In fact, we have received requests from 20 countries, including Nepal, and have tried to facilitate the bilateral donations.”

The UN’s COVAX facility is mainly funded by the UK and EU, but its reliance on India’s Covishield as well as legally-binding shipments of doses to donor countries has set back its programs in Africa and Asia.

Pressure has been building in the UK from Gurkha veterans, MPs, and activists for Britain to provide AstraZeneca vaccines at least for the second doses. At least 63 Gurkha veterans have died in Nepal from Covid-19 during the second wave. 

Nepal’s second wave has crested, but public health officials have warned of a second peak because of what they said was a premature relaxation of lockdown rules while the virus was still spreading in the community and not enough people had been vaccinated.

On Thursday, there were 29 more deaths from Covid-19, and the number of infected people, while much lower than at the peak last month, was higher than the total recovered patients for the third day in a row. The number of active cases in Nepal has risen slightly again to 26,447, after dropping from 120,000.

However, many experts have pointed out that the daily death and infections are severely undercounted.