Agents of vaccine producing companies want advance payment, health ministry not ready to pay

Kathmandu, May 5

Even as the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to snowball into a major human catastrophe in Nepal, the government is staring at a dead end in so far as acquiring vaccines for its population is concerned.

Highly placed sources told The Himalayan Times that the nodal agency, the health ministry, has been bogged down by indecision and bureaucratic indifference in the absence of clear vision and directive from Health Minister Hridayesh Tripathi. So much so, while the rest of the world is rushing to book production capacities of companies that are producing vaccines, Nepal is still floundering in the dark.

In the absence of assured supplies, the country's ongoing vaccination campaign may come to a grinding halt sooner than later.

Given the grim situation, Tripathi has blamed all and sundry, including the local agents of the vaccine producers, mainly the agent of Serum Institute of India, Hukum Distributors.

He has time and again asked these agents to waive off their commission and handling fees while trying to impress upon the Indian government to get SII to supply their Covishield vaccine at subsidised rates. While the Indian government facilitated the supply of two million doses of Covishield, Hukum Distributors agreed to waive off their commission for this particular lot of vaccines thereby acceding to the minister's request.

Out of two million doses that Nepal had decided to procure from SII, one million doses have already been imported and the remaining one million could not be imported due to a fire incident in the vaccine plant and the Government of India's decision to halt export of the vaccines in view of a second COV- ID wave across India.

Although Nepal will need to import 44 million doses to vaccinate around 20 million population, the government is talking of importing only two to four million doses. "The government has no plan to import the required amount of vaccines to inoculate the entire population and is indulging in blame game," the source added.

The source said the government was dilly-dallying due to cumbersome procurement policies. Local agents of vaccine producing companies told THT that they were ready to import any number of vaccines provided the government paid them in advance. "We are even ready to accept the payment once supplies reach Tribhuvan International Airport, but the government is not ready to do even that,'' one of the agents told THT. He said all other countries were paying vaccine producing companies in advance to secure vaccine import.

According to sources, government authorities were mulling over importing 50 million additional doses from India without any concrete plan. Serum Institute of India had agreed to provide 20 million doses at a subsidised rate of $4 per shot, but it had also told the government that it was not in a position to provide additional doses at the same subsidised rate.

One million doses of Covishield gifted by India arrived in Nepal on January 21. On January 27, Nepal launched its inoculation drive. The same day Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli said all Nepalis would be inoculated against COVID free of cost within three months.

On March 7, Nepal received 348,000 doses of vaccine under COVAX facility.

The Chinese government donated eight lakh doses of Vero Cell that arrived in Kathmandu on March 29. Inoculation began on April 7.

On April 20, the government started giving the second dose of Covishield to those who had received the first dose.

The Nepal government has also approved Sputnik V vaccine manufactured by Russia for emergency use against Covid, but the talks to procure the vaccine have hit a roadblock over price.

In a nutshell, the health minister's indecision on how to procure the required number of vaccines to vaccinate at least 70 per cent of Nepal's population threatens to derail the vaccination drive less than four months after its launch.

Minister of Health and Population Hridayesh Tripathi could not be contacted for comments.

Samir Adhikari, assistant spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Population, tried to defend the government, saying, "We have not been able to bring the required number of vaccines, as there is a scarcity of vaccines across the globe." However, not many are ready to buy that argument.