Diversifying Vaccine Campaigns: Dhaka’s Diplomatic Maneuvers for Alternative Sources

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic broke out at the end of December 2019, health experts around the globe forecasted that the only sustainable en route to tackle this human catastrophe was – en masse vaccinations to reach the herd immunity. Since then, efforts kicked off to come up with a vaccine and within a short time, several vaccines were developed. Vaccines are now being administered all over the world; however, poorer and developing countries fare far behind to procure vaccine doses due to the rise of – ‘vaccine nationalism’ in different parts of the developed world, ‘vaccine hegemony’ of the Global North and ‘profit driven vaccine monopoly of big pharmas’.

Amidst this ‘global divide’ on vaccine procurements, Bangladesh flags a largely successful ‘vaccine diplomacy’ campaign to ensure vaccine doses from multiple sources from the very outset of the vaccine production. Despite being a developing country with limited resources, Bangladesh fares pretty well on managing the repercussions of pandemic astonishingly. However, due to the sudden sweep over of Covid-19 cases in India and Bangladesh, and Dhaka’s sole dependency on the Serum Institute of India – Bangladesh’s mass vaccination campaign is set to suffer a major setback in recent times.

 A Sweep Over of ‘New Wave’ and Vaccine Crisis

Recently, Bangladesh has witnessed a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths during the second wave of coronavirus.  A ‘new variant’ of Coronavirus is spreading like wildfire in the neighboring India as well to alarm the entire South Asian region. Henceforth, the uncertainty of receiving 68 million shots of vaccine under a global arrangement called COVAX on due time and the sudden halt of getting 30 million Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines from the Serum Institute of India – has compelled Bangladesh to look for alternative sources.

India’s decision to halt vaccines export to other countries comes as a big blow to Bangladesh due to its sole reliance on vaccines provided by the Serum Institute of India. Currently, India is grappling with an unprecedented Covid-19 crisis, where Delhi is witnessing more than 300,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths per day. Till date, it has recorded a staggering total of 18 million infections and 200,000 deaths. Therefore, following the rise of internal demand, it is not surprising why the Indian government has halted the export of vaccines to other nations. As per an agreement signed in December last year, Dhaka was supposed to receive 30 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (Covishield) from Serum. Although Serum was supposed to provide 5 million doses per month, Bangladesh has received only 7 million doses in two installments while another 3.2 million was sent as a gift from Delhi.  

Bangladesh commenced on mass inoculation from 7 February with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and so far, around 6 million people have received the first jab. As official figures suggest, around 3.5 million people are yet to get their second dose; whilst the government only has approximately 2 million doses in hand. According to the health officials, at the current rate of use, the vaccine stock of the country could run out within the midweek of May. This is, indeed, a big blow for the country in its fight against the deadly pandemic.

Desperate Campaign towards Exploring Other Vaccine Sources

Although the Bangladeshi government has made arrangements to bring 30 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines from Serum Institute of India and announced that the country will procure 68 million shots of vaccine under a global arrangement called COVAX, these are not enough for the eight most populated nation of the world. Till recent times, Dhaka has been solely relying on the AstraZeneca vaccine, the official data confers that only 2% of its 170 million people are fully vaccinated. Therefore, right at this juncture, Dhaka needs to procure more vaccines as soon as possible, and from alternative and sustainable sources.

In doing so, the government has recently given nod to both China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to mitigate the ongoing vaccine crisis. Like India, China has also offered five lakh doses of Sinopharm vaccine as a gift for Bangladesh on May 12, 2021. Bangladesh and Russia are cooperating and coordinating to manufacture vaccines in Bangladesh by sharing the ‘know how’ technology of producing vaccines.  Furthermore, Dhaka has joined the China-led initiative, called “China-South Asia Platform for Covid-19 consultation, Cooperation, and Post-Pandemic Economic Recovery that aims to ensure vaccine and oxygen supply among the countries of South Asia (except India). All these diplomatic efforts and engagements should be seen as a good opportunity from Bangladesh’s perspective.

Importantly, Bangladesh should even go beyond Beijing and Moscow’s assistance to ensure timely vaccination. Bangladesh can head towards different channels of diplomatic initiatives to procure alternative vaccine sources. On his recent diplomatic visit to Bangladesh, John Kerry asserted that US would provide vaccines to other countries, including Bangladesh following Washington reach a certain level in their vaccinations. Furthermore, the US chamber of commerce argued that the surplus AstraZeneca vaccines could be provided to India, Brazil and other pandemic stricken states. Thus, it is the right time for Dhaka to maneuver its diplomatic efforts to avail some of those vaccines. In doing so, Bangladesh commendably approached several Western countries for help, including the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. In this regard, the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh is hoping to secure 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the United States in the coming days.

Lessons to Ponder About 

Now, at this potential critical crisis, Bangladesh needs to assess few important lessons to withstand this unrelenting pandemic. Firstly, it is understandable that Dhaka’s dependence on one single source for such an important initiative was based on visible factors as such WHO has ‘only approved’ Oxford vaccine on that time. However, at this critical juncture, there is no option without seeking alternative sources. Because, the way in which India abruptly halted the vaccine consignments is a sort of breach of trust and agreement from a country that proclaimed to be a time-tested friend. However, it is equally important to understand that India took this action in the context of the grappling with the deep crisis they are facing. Thus, to avoid a similar situation in future, Dhaka should remain cautious to ‘not to put all its eggs in one basket’ again. Secondly, even if India did provide the 30 million vaccines on schedule, this would still be absolutely inadequate to create the required herd immunity for Bangladesh. That is why it was imperative to look into alternative sources of the vaccine from now on.

Thirdly, there is a timely need to assess the efficacy rate of ‘non-western’ vaccines. That’s why, the experts of global South apprehended that Russian and Chinese vaccines have become the ‘victims’ of vaccine monopoly of global North, particularly due to the notorious reluctance of the vaccine producers of the West. Thus, scholars speculate that WHO, under Western influence, didn’t authorize those vaccines in fear of losing the Western monopoly. As pandemic is relentlessly spreading, it is, therefore, imperative to look for other ‘non-western’ vaccines as well to keep up the pace of massive vaccinations. In this regard, the Chinese and Russian vaccines should get particular attention, as such these vaccines fares pretty well in respective regions. Finally, Bangladesh has long had the capacity to manufacture vaccines. The time has come to initiate the manufacture of ‘homegrown’ vaccines with the Russian assistance. Hence, the progression of talks with Russia over sharing the ‘know how’ technology to produce vaccines should be followed up in all earnest. It will be a significant move for Dhaka if it can successfully manage to produce vaccines at home. By doing so, Bangladesh can become a major vaccine manufacturing country, not just for itself, as well as for the global market in the days ahead.

Hassan Ahmed Shovon
Hassan Ahmed Shovon
Hassan Ahmed Shovon, an independent researcher and graduate student from Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.