ALL eyes are on the government as it pledges to roll out the Covid-19 vaccination programme to about 80m citizens by the first quarter of 2021. On several occasions, officials have said that Pakistan will kick off the vaccine drive in phases in March and that the target population will be inoculated by November this year. Given that the government is yet to procure the vaccine from the multiple manufacturers it is engaged in discussions with, this is a challenging plan. At present, the government is in talks with multiple entities, including Chinese pharmaceutical companies Sinopharm and CanSino, whose vaccines have been under trial in Pakistan. Yesterday, an announcement from Drap indicated that the Oxford vaccine AstraZeneca, too, has been approved for procurement. Aside from these, Pakistan is also eligible to receive free vaccines under the Covax programme which procures the vaccine for less-developed countries with the goal of equitable distribution. While these are promising signs, the big test ahead for the government still looms as an official order has yet to be placed and March is less than a month and a half away. Given the global demand for vaccines, and the priorities of these pharma companies to supply to their own countries first, the government’s pledge to start vaccinating the population in the first quarter appears ambitious. Even if approvals have come, orders are yet to be placed. Here, Pakistan’s low investment in the fields of biotechnology and education is evident. It means that we, unlike India, will not be able to manufacture the vaccine, and will therefore not only vaccinate our population later than others but also not generate any revenue during the exercise.

Beyond procurement and supply, the other major challenge for the government will be effective distribution through an uninterrupted programme. Logistics, effective communication and upholding the best medical practices will play a key part in a successful programme. Disinformation and propaganda about the Covid-19 vaccination is at an all-time high, as social media and private messaging groups are flooded with false information and fear-mongering content that can dissuade people from taking the jab. As it makes efforts to bring the vaccine to Pakistan, the government must also simultaneously have a roll-out plan. Improved inter-provincial coordination sans politics, too, will play a pivotal role here as both the federal and provincial governments, especially Sindh, should focus on the common goal despite their political differences.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2021

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