The million doses of Covid-19 vaccines that arrived in Nepal from India on Jan 21 represent the tip of the iceberg of what is needed to inoculate the country’s 29 million population. Nepal for instance will need around 40 million doses of the kind India gave: around 72 percent of the population has to be inoculated, each person twice. India provided the first million doses free of cost. But future consignments will not be free. Besides India, cash-strapped Nepal is also looking at China and Russia as potential suppliers; if they don’t charge us, so much the better.
Navigating the vaccine minefield will be tricky. First, some vaccines Nepal may get may not have been scientifically tested, or at least not with the expected rigor. Multiple concerns have been raised regarding the safety of various Indian, Russian and Chinese vaccines. If different vaccines are given to different people, how can broad immunity be assured? What if some vaccines are dangerous? This is why, as far as practicable, and even if it means paying a bit more, Nepal should look to import one proven vaccine in large doses. (The Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine that came in the first consignment from India certainly meets scientific standards.)
Another problem will be the delivery and dispensation of vaccines. Frontline workers like hospital staff and police personnel, the first group to be inoculated in Nepal, will have to wait for at least a couple of weeks before their first jab. Apparently, those administering the vaccine will first have to undergo training. And who ensures the vaccines are going to the right people—that they won’t ‘disappear’ from hospital freezers and end up coursing the veins of the highest bidders?
But before all that, we will have to get the required number of vaccines. Russia, it had been reported in some quarters, was ready to offer us 25 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccines. But then the news was refuted by Nepali officials. As of now, there is no clarity on where the remaining doses are coming from. The government would do well to issue regular updates on its procurement process and on how the vaccines will be handled and equitably delivered.