Beximco Pharma will store the vaccine for now and hand them over to the government within five days
Wait is over as Bangladesh received the first lot of the purchased Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines from the Serum Institute of India (SII), with its first consignment landing in Dhaka on Monday morning.
Nine freezer vans were waiting at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport to carry the five million dosages that arrived in boxes by a special Air India flight from Mumbai airport around 11am.
The Beximco Pharma vans transported the vaccines to their warehouse in Tongi, Nazmul Hasan Papon, managing director of Beximco Pharmaceuticals told reporters.
According to officials concerned, Beximco Pharma has stored the vaccines — called AZD1222 under SII’s brand name Covishield — in its warehouse at Tongi for now.
They are set to hand them over to the government by Wednesday for distribution among the district and upazila-level cold storages under the health directorate’s EPI (Expanded Program on Immunization) in line with the Health Ministry's deployment plan.
“As the exclusive distributor of the vaccine, we will send out the vaccine to all districts after necessary tests,” said Nazmul Hasan Papon.
From each batch, the government drug testing laboratory will take samples to conduct tests to get clearance of distribution according to government’s plans. “I think the distribution will take four to five days.”
He said that an electronic device has been placed in each carton of vaccines. This device is sending temperature update information to the SII every 15 minutes.
The cartons will be opened after DGHS’s officials’ inspection. “There are temperature monitoring devices in every box. Beximco will take responsibility for any damage till the vaccine is delivered.”
The vaccine should be kept between 2°C to 8°C all the time. “We should ensure first that the cold chain was maintained from Mumbai to the district headquarters here. We will replace the consignments if there is damage, shortage or any other problems.”
Nazmul also told reporters at the airport: “As per the deal, five miillion doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine will arrive each month for six months. We have three warehouses with a capacity of preserving 10 million doses.”
“At first, the government said to provide the vaccine to eight to 10 districts in Bangladesh but now we have to provide the vaccine in 64 districts of the country which is a big challenge,” he said.
Replying to a question, he said: “Now we are receiving the vaccine from Serum Institute of India. Vaccines from two to three more companies, including from Johnson & Johnson, will come out in the next two to three months. The government will decide about production.”
Officials of DGHS and DGDA were present at the airport to receive the consignment.
On November 5 last year, the government, SII, and Beximco had signed a tripartite agreement to import the vaccine developed by Oxford University and British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
About 30 million doses have been secured, which SII would deliver over a period of six months — five million a month.
Bangladesh however, received 2 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as a gift from the Indian government. That was the first ever consignment of vaccines that arrived in Bangladesh.
The country has so far purchased three crore doses from Serum through Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd.
On January 21, Bangladesh, which has so far lost over 8,000 people to the deadly disease, had also received two million doses of the same vaccine as the Indian government sent them as a gift.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to inaugurate the vaccination drive on Wednesday at Kurmitola General Hospital. A nurse will receive the first jab there.
The nationwide vaccination program will start after a week of observation and a dry run on 400-500 people in Dhaka.
The government has worked out a plan for national vaccination against Covid-19 with a target to give two doses of jabs to each of over 130 million people to eliminate the prevalence of the deadly virus.
As per the plan, a total of 138,247,000 people will be vaccinated in five stages.
Health workers, freedom fighters, law enforcement agencies, military and other forces, government officials, journalists, public representatives, employees of city corporations and municipalities, and religious leaders will get the shots initially.
A total of 17,280,939 people will be inoculated in the two stages of the first phase. In the second phase, 17,280,000 people will be vaccinated while 103,684,000 people in the third and final phase under two stages.
The government has a list of everyone who will be vaccinated, said Health Minister Zahid Maleque on Sunday.
He said the government has a list of everyone who will be vaccinated in phases, but added that no one will be forced to receive the vaccine.
The minister said the government is also in talks with Russia, China, and others for collecting more vaccines.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine was proven to be safe with no major side-effects reported throughout the human trials. It generates strong antibody and T-cells response for long-term immunity against the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
A pause during the trials to address safety concerns in the second week of September received a lot of publicity, but a review by the Medicines Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) in the UK reinforced the proof of vaccine safety, allowing the trials to resume after a week.
The Oxford vaccine, as it has rather fondly come to be known, has showcased 62% efficacy in the trials when two full doses were given to participants.
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However, among a limited number of participants, who received a lower first dose followed by a full second dose, the efficacy went up to 90%. Based on these results, the overall efficacy, combining different dosage groups, was shown to be 70%, which attracted some controversy.
However, the half-dosage method was a result of an error, as admitted by AstraZeneca. Moreover, the relatively lower number of volunteers of more than 55 years in that cohort also raised some eyebrows, eventually leading to the idea of a half dose followed by a full dose booster being ditched.
While the efficacy of the Oxford vaccine may seem quite low compared to the extraordinary efficacy of around 95% showcased by Pfizer and Moderna’s cutting-edge mRNA vaccines in the US, the easy storage and transportation benefits of Covishield trumps the mRNA vaccines that must be stored at ultracool temperatures of -20°C to -70°C.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored at regular fridge temperatures (2°C to 8°C).