Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar on Thursday said that the third wave of the coronavirus has started in the country.
Speaking on DawnNews TV show Zara Hut Kay, Umar, who is heading Pakistan's response to the coronavirus, said there was "no doubt" that the third wave had started and cited the spread of the coronavirus variant from the United Kingdom as the reason behind it.
"The phenomenon that is driving [the third wave] is the spread of the UK strain." He said that when the government looked at districts where a higher number of cases were reported, it found that these were areas where a large population of Pakistanis residing in Britain lived.
"We asked NIH (National Institute of Health) to do genome sequencing and first we saw [the UK strain] in areas in north Pakistan, including Islamabad. After that, we also did [genome sequencing] for the rest of the country.
"The dominant strain at this time is the UK strain," he added.
Umar said that the new strain of the coronavirus was more transmissible than the original strain from Wuhan. The most recent research reports suggested that its mortality rate is also higher, he added.
"Our own statistics from the last few weeks show a sustained increase in our case fatality rate (the number of patients who succumbed to the virus from the total number infected). At the time, we were speculating that it may be linked to the UK strain. But now the research report is here which establishes [the link]," the minister said, terming it a "very dangerous situation".
Talking about neighbouring countries, India and Bangladesh, the minister noted that cases were increasing everywhere.
When asked about the number of Pakistanis who had been infected by the UK Covid-19 strain, Umar replied that the government could not do the genome sequencing of every positive test because it was a "cumbersome and expensive process".
However, the government had done statistical analysis through sampling, Umar shared. "We can definitely conclude that the majority of cases being reported now — more than half — are of the UK variant."
There were several cities where two-thirds of the new cases were of the UK variant, he added.
A day earlier, Pakistan reported more than 2,000 virus cases for the first time since January, raising fears of a third wave.
Talking about vaccinations and why Pakistan was lagging behind in the number of people inoculated against the virus, the minister noted that India was among the world's biggest vaccine manufacturers. Other countries in the region had therefore received vaccine doses from India as part of diplomatic relations which had given them a headstart, he said.
Umar said Western governments, including those in the United States, UK, and Canada had invested billions of dollars at the development stage which is why the process to invent vaccines was accelerated. However, this led to a "lock" on the vaccines by those countries, he added.
"The other options that were available to us were the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and CansinoBio."
The minister said that Pakistan was among the first signatories to the Covax programme for Covid-19 vaccines and signed formal agreements in December as well.
"Our main supply source is Gavi and we received confirmation again. It was initially expected that vaccine doses would be available on March 2. They have to provide vaccines for 45 million Pakistanis."
This would be without cost for taxpayers, he clarified. The manufacturing for the AstraZeneca vaccine, which would be supplied to Pakistan, was being done at the Serum Institute of India, Umar said.
He said the government was confident that the first batch of vaccines would be received within the current month. The first batch of vaccines from CansinoBio would also be delivered this month.
"Another big delivery will happen with next month. We will fill [the vaccines here] and might later use the facility to export them to the region.
"We already have vaccines for everyone in Pakistan who has registered."
He said the government had estimated that a large number of people would be hesitant to get vaccinated against Covid-19, adding that it would be a "very big achievement" if 60 per cent of people were inoculated.
"Vaccinations will be happening at the end of 2021 as well," he predicted.
Umar said that more than half of the country's healthcare workers had been vaccinated.
Talking about vaccine efficacy, he said that it would only be known after three to six months which vaccine was most successful.
"All these vaccines that have been approved by the world's leading regulatory agencies are safe for you. There is a much bigger risk if you don't get vaccinated," he emphasised.
Addressing concerns about side-effects from the vaccines, Umar said no such case had been reported in the country.
He shared that Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan and Adviser to the Prime Minister for Institutional Reforms Dr Ishrat Husain, who was around 80 years of age, had recently been vaccinated with Sinopharm.
He said in the next phase, vaccination registration would open for people aged 50 and above in two weeks.
When asked why teachers were not being prioritised for vaccination, he said when "we go into value judgements, we will step into a minefield".
Pvt sector procurement
Umar said that a private market for vaccines had not been established anywhere in the world as governments still had control because supply was short and demand was more.
"There was no example of the price mechanism. We did not want to have any obstacle that would prevent the private sector from importing vaccines and giving those to people who were willing to pay for them," he said while talking about the government's decision to remove price caps on vaccine import.
He clarified that no company had imported the vaccine yet despite having permission to do so.