Against the odds, tiny Bhutan rolls out a second round of mass vaccinations.
Less than two weeks ago, a charter flight carrying half a million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine from Moderna took off from Kentucky and landed at Bhutan International Airport. As of Monday, most adults in the remote Himalayan kingdom had been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, thanks to donated vaccines.
The July 12 flight was the culmination of a week-long diplomatic scramble in which the government of Bhutan asked 28 countries to provide doses for its second round of vaccinations, according to Will Parks, the national representative. from the United Nations Children’s Agency.
The plane was carrying doses donated by the United States and distributed through Covax, a global vaccine sharing partnership. Separately, Denmark sent 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca directly; Bulgaria, Croatia and other nations sent 100,000 more; and China has sent 50,000 doses of its Sinopharm vaccine. Most of Bhutan’s second round shots have been administered over the past week, including to high-altitude yak breeders.
Bhutan’s success is notable as the vaccination campaign of the world’s poorest countries falters as rich countries delay dose shipments, exacerbating inequalities in the pandemic response that analysts see as a failure moral and epidemiological.
“I hope this good news will inspire the international community to do more to reach out to other countries in need of vaccines as well,” said Lisa Herzog, professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands who studied l ethics of the Covax distribution model.
In March, Bhutan achieved a remarkable feat: vaccinating more than 93% of eligible adults with the first doses in a country where some villages are only accessible by helicopter or on foot. But the success of this endeavor meant the government had to complete a second round of vaccinations within the recommended window of 12 to 16 weeks.
The first set – 550,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine – was donated by the Indian government, where the drug is known as Covishield and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine producer. But India then slashed its vaccine exports as its own epidemic increased.
“Bhutan had this kind of circumstantial imperative to hunt, hunt and hunt vaccines in sufficient quantity to arrive en masse in a limited time, to be used in a mass vaccination for the second round,” said Dr Parks, representing from UNICEF. “Other countries have not experienced this kind of situation, where they made a massive first round. It was a trickle down effect.
Tashi Yangchen, a representative of Bhutan’s health ministry, said the second round of mass vaccination ended on Monday with 90.2% of eligible adults fully vaccinated. Dr Parks said the official figure will rise a bit more in the coming days as people from hard-to-reach groups, such as nomadic tribes, receive a second injection.
Dr Parks credited Bhutan’s government and royal palace leadership, along with low levels of vaccine reluctance and strong cold chain infrastructure.
Another reason, he said, is that the success of the first round of fire helped prove to donors that the country of less than 800,000 people could launch a second round effectively and efficiently.
“Some of the other countries – which were struggling to use the vaccines they had – couldn’t really fall back on this demonstration that ‘if you give, we will use’,” he said.
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