By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Daily News
Colombo, January 11 (Daily News): With the Sri Lankan cabinet granting approval to sign an agreement with manufacturers when allocating vaccines through the COVAX facility, vaccination against the dreaded COVID-19 is expected to commence shortly.
Sri Lanka has already joined the COVAX facility and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) which is accredited by the World Health Organization. The COVAX facility is a global initiative that brings together governments and manufacturers to ensure equal distribution among the various countries of the world. The production and development of the vaccines for COVID-19 are being accelerated and it will be ensured that it will reach every country in the world.
Senior Adviser to the President, Lalith Weeratunga, said the first group to be vaccinated would be the frontline health workers, including nurses. Currently, there are approximately 155,000 persons in the health sector. This has also been the recommendation of WHO.
Secondly, the vaccine will be made available to frontline Armed Forces and Police personnel who are actively involved in the pandemic control programme. That group comprises 127,500 persons.
Weeratunga said in a media interview that he was optimistic that a COVID-19 vaccine could be made available to Sri Lankans by end February or by early March the latest. Answering a question, he assured that the vaccine could be made available before the dawn of the 2021 Sinhala – Hindu New Year in April.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a committee headed by Weeratunga to determine the COVID-19 vaccine most suitable to Sri Lanka. The Committee, which included health experts who studied the anti-COVID-19 vaccinations produced by some countries, decided to recommend the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in India by the Serum Institute of India (SII). Further recommendations were on vaccines manufactured in China and Russia.
The Committee ruled out the Pfizer/BioNTech manufactured in the EU, taking into consideration the cost factor as well as other issues such as the requirement to keep it at a temperature below minus 70 degrees Celsius. Weeratunga pointed out that the Pfizer vaccine cost US$ 20 per dose and it would require ultra-cold freezers for transportation and the cost would be much higher. Furthermore, there could be many delays in importing freezer trucks.
The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine would cost only US$ 3 per unit (dose) and it would be far easier to transport and keep in normal refrigerators. The Health Ministry has decided on a priority list of recipients for the coronavirus vaccine which consists of vulnerable groups. Among the recipients identified are people above 60 years, frontline workers and other essential workers.
Consultant Epidemiologist at the Health Ministry Dr. Deepa Gamage said Sri Lanka is to receive the vaccine through the COVAX program of the WHO to administer to 20 percent of the population. “Initially we were told we had to pay for the vaccine. Later we were told that the vaccine for 20 percent of the population will be given free of charge. The rest we need to purchase if we require,” she said.
Weeratunga said the Treasury has already set aside funds to purchase the first consignment of the vaccine. The Government has initiated discussions with the World Bank to obtain a soft loan worth Rs. 10 billion (US$ 53 million) to purchase vaccines against COVID-19. It is also looking at the possibility of obtaining funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Union for this purpose.
Sri Lanka joined the COVAX facility last year and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) has accredited the nation, making it eligible to receive the vaccines through the program. The Sri Lankan Cabinet has approved the Part 1 of the COVAX agreement, enabling the country to obtain a limited quantity of the COVID-19 vaccine in the first quarter of this year. Eligible countries are required to submit request applications in two phases to receive the vaccine facility. The first part – which includes information regarding the target group, storage capacity and technical information – was submitted on December 7, 2020.
Confirming this, Additional Secretary of Public Health Services Dr Lakshmi Somatunga said technical sub-committees have examined various aspects of the COVID-19 vaccines including storage and the prioritization of target groups to receive the inoculation.
Weeratunga said 35 percent of the population could be excluded as children and pregnant mothers would not be vaccinated. People above the age of 60, people suffering from serious illnesses, doctors and medical staff and other frontline workers often dealing with coronavirus patients and staff employed at institutions crucial to the economy of the country like the international airports have been identified as those who will first receive the vaccine in Sri Lanka. The vaccine for 20 percent of the population will be received in two stages.
India’s drug regulating authorities have approved the AstraZeneca Covishield and Bharat Biotech Covaxin as vaccines for restricted use against COVID-19, paving the way for mass vaccination against the virus. Covishield is the Indian variant of AZD1222, the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. Pune-based Serum Institute of India developed and manufactured Covishield through a license from AstraZeneca and Oxford. According to medical experts, it is a “non-replicating viral vector” vaccine, which means it makes use of another weakened and genetically modified virus – in this case a common cold chimpanzee virus – to help the body develop immunity against the coronavirus. The vaccine carries just the code to make the spike protein (the spike on the virus’s surface). The body’s immune system is supposed to recognize this protein as a threat, and work on building antibodies against it.
Covaxin, developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the National Institute of Virology, uses a different platform. Medical experts say it is an “inactivated” vaccine, which means it uses the killed SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has no potential to infect or replicate once injected and just serves to boost an immune response.
Both vaccines have received what is known as a “restricted use approval in an emergency situation” – similar to an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) that countries like the UK and US have been granting to companies like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca for their vaccines.
According to Indian health experts, the restricted approval to Covaxin has been given in clinical trial mode. Bharat Biotech will still have to complete vaccinating nearly 26,000 participants in its phase-3 trial, and then collect and analyze data from these people. Bharat Biotech was earlier testing its vaccine by giving half of its participants a placebo. According to the firm, everyone it is testing now will be given Covaxin and data on safety and efficacy will be analyzed from them over a fixed time period.
India has already approved the two vaccines and commenced its mass vaccination program. Stocks of the two vaccines have been transported to over 30 vaccination hubs, in places like Lucknow, Panchkula, Chennai and Delhi. Indian authorities announced that in the first tranche, the vaccination points will be healthcare facilities where nearly seven million public and private health professionals will be vaccinated over the course of three months. The next to receive vaccines are likely to be frontline workers and then people aged 50 years and above.
Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan earlier said the Government expected the first phase of vaccination – targeting around 300 million people based on priority – to be completed by August 2021.
The WHO declared the coronavirus a global pandemic more than nine months ago and since then, the illness it causes, known as COVID-19, has spread to nearly every country in the world. Sri Lanka, with more than 45,000 confirmed cases and 217 deaths, eagerly awaits the vaccine to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused much damage to the economy.