First dose of vaccines expected to arrive by March: Foreign Minister

50 to 100 to be vaccinated from the first consignment

After the first consignment, the remaining 400,000 plus doses of vaccine required for the roll out is expected to arrive by March as assured by India, said Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji.

Bhutan received the first consignment of 150,000 doses of Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine also known as the Covishield as a gift from India on January 20.

However, the requirement for the eligible population roll out is 533,000 doses.

With a population of 720,000 including foreign workers, Bhutan requires around 1.1mn doses to vaccinate around 533,000 people since 250,000 would not be vaccinated including those under 18 years of age, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and people with serious ailments like cancer and those who have been under long-term medication.

“Those who are infected and recovered are also to be vaccinated,” said Lyonpo.

To start with, Lyonpo said around 50-100 doses would be administered to the Bhutanese traveling abroad including referral patients and front-liners like health-workers and those on border duty.

“This would give us an opportunity to look into any adverse effects or events caused by the vaccine,” said Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji, adding that government would then roll out the vaccination at a go to the entire population.

“If sections of the population are vaccinated, there are chances of the virus spreading in the community by those who have not received the vaccine,” he added.

Lyonpo said as soon as the required doses arrive, the roll out would begin.

“If the required dosages of vaccine arrive before Dana (inauspicious month), starting February 14, we will carry out the first phase of the vaccination campaign,” said Lyonpo, adding that the concern at the moment is inadequate number of vaccines.

He said that the government plans to deploy around 2,400 health workers and train them for the vaccination drive that is to be completed within five to seven days.

Additionally, he said the remotest places like Laya and Lingzhi, would get the vaccines via helicopter.

Lyonpo assured that the government would bank additional 15,000 doses for other requirements as 12,000 women give birth yearly and there are those who are travelling abroad.

He said that experts have predicted that the first dose of vaccine would prevent 60% from contracting the virus while the second dose would protect 70% to 90% of the population. “The gaps between the first and second dose could be four to 12 weeks.”

“The longer the gap between the doses, the better,” said Lyonpo.

Lyonpo said Covishield could be stored in an ordinary household fridge for about nine months and the country has adequate freezers in medical centers across the country.

According to Lyonpo, the government is expecting 100,000 doses of Pfizer and that in a few months, more vaccine manufacturers from China, Bangladesh, and Thailand will enter the market.

“The situation will not go back to pre-COVID days even after the COVID-19 vaccine roll out since all sections of the population will not be vaccinated and people would still be at risk,” the Lyonpo said.

Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that the COVID vaccine is not compulsory and that people won’t be forced to take the vaccine.

However, he added that those who are not willing to take the vaccine should sign an undertaking and that the health ministry will keep the document ready when the vaccine is rolled out.

Those who will be vaccinated will also have to sign an undertaking, the Lyonpo said, adding that the health ministry will advocate about the effects of the vaccine beforehand.

Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu