Government should assess whether the IPH or EDCL can be made ready for vaccine production, they say
Although local pharmaceutical companies are showing a growing interest in either procuring or manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines, local health experts have said it is the government and not the private sector that should collect and produce jabs to ensure quality, affordability and accessibility.
They also voiced doubts about the capabilities of the three companies that have proposed to manufacture Russia's Sputnik V vaccine in Bangladesh.
The analysts suggested the government assess whether the Institute of Public Health (IPH) or state-owned Essential Drugs Company Limited (EDCL) can be modernized within a short period of time to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines.
Robed Amin, spokesperson for the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), said local companies Incepta, Unihealth and Popular pharmaceuticals have shown their interest in manufacturing Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.
He said the companies have submitted their proposals to the government and their capabilities will be scrutinized.
The DGHS official said Renata Limited, another Bangladeshi pharmaceutical company, has sought permission from the government to import Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine and discussions are ongoing in this regard.
Robed further said the government is also assessing the prospect of manufacturing vaccines both through private companies and public institutions.
Are the companies capable of vaccine manufacturing?
Dr Be-Nazir Ahmed, former director (Disease Control) of DGHS, said he has doubts about the capacity of the companies to manufacture the vaccine even though they claim they are capable.
He said these companies can import vaccines in bulk from Russia or China before bottling and marketing it in the country. “But it will take a plenty of time to meet the demand through bulk vaccine imports. The government should seriously evaluate the capacity of the companies that applied for permission to produce vaccines.”
Dr Be-Nazir said Incepta is currently importing tetanus vaccines in bulk from abroad.
Prof Muzaherul Huq, a former adviser to WHO South-East Asia region, also thinks these companies are not equipped well enough to manufacture the vaccine.
“Bangladeshi companies surely produce quality medicine, but they don’t have adequate preparations and facilities to produce the Covid-19 vaccine. As some companies are showing their interest in manufacturing it, their capacity should be properly examined.”
Building vaccine production institution essential
Muzaherul said the government can take steps to strengthen the Institute of Public Health (IPH) to manufacture vaccines in the country through agreement with Russia or China.
He said IPH has significant experience producing vaccines. “The government can manufacture Covid-19 vaccines under its own supervision through enhancing IPH’s capacity.”
Muzaherul, a former director of the IPH, said it was a reputed institution across Asia as it used to produce DPT, polio and cholera vaccines, but its condition has deteriorated due to negligence.
He said even the government can take help from Russian or China to strengthen IPH and produce their vaccines. “It will help ensure the quality of vaccines and keep the production price at a lower level.”
Dr Be-Nazir also said IPH was once a large and respected organisation for producing vaccines, but it was ruined due to negligence, corruption and irregularities.
He said Bangladesh Society of Medical Microbiologists formed a committee in 2008, making him the committee member secretary, for the revival of IPH. “We found it difficult to revive the organization without huge investment. It can still be restructured and made ready for producing vaccines, but it will take time and money.”
Dr Be-Nazir, however, said Essential Drugs Company Limited (EDCL), the only state-owned pharmaceuticals company, can produce vaccines if the government strengthens its capacity.
“We need to have our own institution to produce vaccines. Every year, we will need many vaccines for our children, and we can produce them at our own institutions. We can also export them after meeting our local demand,” he observed.
Public health expert MH Chowdhury (Lenin), chairman of the medicine department at the Health and Hope Hospital, said: “It seems that we’re only interested in cash purchases instead of building our own institutions. One thing is clear: the way coronavirus is being muted and new variants are emerging, it won’t be possible for us to import vaccines from abroad year after year. So, we should focus on building an institution in the country to produce vaccines by the government.”
He said Iran lags behind Bangladesh in terms of economic development, but the country is going to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines. "Many other countries, including Saudi Arabia, are also going to manufacture vaccines through agreement with the original developers.”
Govt should procure vaccines
Prof Muzaherul Huq said Bangladesh needs at least 250 million doses to attain herd immunity. “I think these jabs should be collected by the government as it will have to provide them to people free of cost.”
He also said the government should make all-out efforts to get the jabs of AstraZeneca, as there are huge stocks of it in the USA, Canada and many European countries. “I think these jabs can be collected from these countries on a priority basis by intensifying diplomatic efforts.”
Besides, Muzaherul said the government should also continue its efforts to get vaccines from China and Russia. “The government can bring vaccines from other countries and sources, but it should keep in mind whether the country has the capacity to properly preserve those.”
Muzaherul said: “When the private sector produces or procures vaccines, they will do it to make money and vaccine prices will be much higher. That is why I think the government itself should do it.”
He said it will also be difficult for the government to ensure the quality of vaccines produced by private companies.
Dr Be-Nazir said the main point is that people have to be vaccinated free of cost, no matter how the jabs are collected.
“The government can procure it directly from abroad or bring it by any third party or allow any local private company to manufacture it here. Whatever the government does, it has to be ensured that people’s money does not go down the drain and no company can make huge profits. When a company manufactures any vaccine, it will surely make profits, but it has to be reasonable,” he said
“We’re seeing from Covid-19 tests how private companies are making money. Private hospitals are still taking Tk3,500 for a Covid-19 test although the kit price has declined to Tk 500-800 from 3,000 to 2,500. Such profit-mongering causes suffering for the middle and lower-middle classes of people,” Dr Be-Nazir added.