Sindh Health Minister Dr Azra Pechuho urged the federal government on Saturday to allow Sindh to procure a vaccine for the novel coronavirus as she criticised the Centre for a slow approach in ordering vaccines, cautioning that a delay on this front would make Pakistan a "pariah" country.
Talking about prime minister's aide on health Dr Faisal Sultan's statement that the federal government wanted to obtain the vaccine with the highest efficacy, Pechuho said:
"Look at other countries, are UK, US, Europe all rushing? Even African countries have started procurement. India has started vaccination, Turkey has started. You have been left behind in the race. [If] we continue to sit back, our people will get sick and die. You will become a pariah internationally. Like polio, [Pakistanis] will have to show a coronavirus vaccination certificate, it would become hard to travel."
Dr Sultan had yesterday told Dawn that the government's "target is to procure the vaccine in the first quarter of the current year, and we are confident of doing so. But it is quite difficult to say on which date we will acquire the vaccine.”
In her press conference today, Pechuho said that every vaccine had some side effects but there were no reports of major problems caused by any of the vaccines that are being used around the world. She said that it was important for people to be vaccinated as soon as possible so that they will be protected from the serious health problems that are caused by Covid-19.
Sindh Information Minister Nasir Hussain Shah, who also addressed the press conference alongside Pechuho, agreed with her and said that the federal government should allow the Sindh government to procure a vaccine if the Centre is unable to place orders.
Pechuho said that the Sindh government wanted to procure Sinopharm, which is produced by China, as well as other vaccines being manufactured around the world. The minister said trials of the Sinopharm vaccine had been successful and pointed out that it was being used in China, UAE and Bahrain as well.
"We have had no reports of any problems [caused by Sinopharm]," she told reporters. "The Chinese government had allowed ICCBS (International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences) to procure the vaccine as it conducted its trials. But the Chinese government told us to contact them through the federal government or the foreign ministry.
"So this is my request to the federal government to allow us to procure this vaccine," the provincial minister added. She said the Centre should also play its part in providing vaccines to Sindh but the provincial government must be allowed to procure vaccines for its residents also.
She emphasised that the Sindh government wanted to start a vaccination drive as soon as possible "so our people can be safe and secure".
The health minister also stressed that more than one vaccine will have to be procured as it will not be possible to get just one in a quantity that would be enough to vaccinate the entire population.
Speaking about the Sputnik V vaccine, which has been developed by Russia, Pechuho said: "We cannot place orders with manufacturers because other countries have already placed orders for huge quantities."
The Sindh health minister ruled out the Pfizer vaccine, saying that the country does not have the required storage facilities.
In response to a question, Pechuho said that the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan had approved the AstraZeneca vaccine but it was being procured by the private sector, not the government. She added that private sector health facilities will likely have the vaccine by next week. The minister, however, insisted that the government wanted to procure the vaccine so that it can be provided to the population for free.
"I will talk to the federal government about AstraZeneca that if we, as a province, can procure it from the private sector and provide it to people for free [then] at least our vaccination drive will start," she said.
"Our vaccination centres are ready, all preparations of logistics, HR, are complete. We have also conducted a dry run at Jinnah and at one other place," she shared.
She said that it was a "very difficult phase" as the province has a huge population and around 70-80 per cent of the people have to be vaccinated.
"We do not know, until now, about the procurement strategy, from which manufacturers the vaccine will be purchased, in what quantity and how it will be distributed," the minister said.
When asked about the patients of the UK virus variant, Pechuho said that all five of them were doing well and assured that the virus had not spread.
'Pakistan losing ground in Covid fight by delaying vaccine'
Meanwhile, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari heaped blame on the federal government, stating that Pakistan was losing ground in the fight against the coronavirus by delaying the vaccine.
Speaking to the media in Karachi, he said: "They mention Covid when a Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) jalsa happens, but they are not ready to take steps towards addressing the pandemic."
"We are losing ground [...] they only way out of this difficult situation is by [procuring the vaccine]. We were ahead in the region [in the fight against Covid] due to people's sacrifices and lockdowns, but now we will fall behind."
He added that the federal government had not prepared for importing the vaccine while other nations were acting quickly in this regard.
"We were expecting [the vaccine] in January. The Sindh government was expecting that it could roll out its [vaccination] campaign. We were told to complete our preparation by January," he said, adding that the authorities concerned had "prepared its mechanisms" for inoculating frontline workers.
"What have gauged is that we will have to wait longer," he said, adding that this was detrimental to the country. He also regretted the government's approach towards procuring the vaccine by engaging the private sector.
"The government is giving preference to the private sector [...] it is being given full freedom. Whoever has money will be able to get the vaccine." He added that the government should instead have procured the shot for frontline workers.