The government has requested AstraZeneca to authorise production of its Covid-19 vaccine in Bangladesh.
A proposal was sent to the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical company seeking its technology to produce vaccine from seed (manufacturing the vaccine) or vaccine in bulk (importing and repackaging it).
"We have sent a letter to AstraZeneca 10 days ago, requesting them to provide us their technology so that we can produce the vaccine locally and we have that capacity," Health Minister Zahid Maleque told The Daily on Thursday.
He said the government wanted either seed or vaccine in bulk from AstraZeneca to manufacture or bottle the low-cost and widely used vaccine.
Virus seed and host cell banks are raw materials to initiate vaccine production.
Asked whether Bangladesh has the capacity to produce the vaccine, the health minister said there are a few pharmaceutical companies capable of it.
"We have already visited some plants of those companies and found them capable of producing vaccine," he said.
Contacted yesterday, the health minister said they were yet to get any reply from AstraZaneca.
Unlike the BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine does not have to be stored at ultra-low temperatures. The vaccine can be stored, transported and handled at normal refrigeration temperatures of 2-8 degrees Celsius for at least six months.
AstraZeneca and BioNTech-Pfizer both have agreements with COVAX, a global initiative that aims to distribute low-cost vaccines to low- and middle-income countries.
Experts hailed it as a good initiative from the government.
They also said the government should be in contact with innovators of other vaccines, which are developed with other newer platforms or technologies.
"Bangladesh has the capacity to produce vaccine from seed. What we need is the transfer of appropriate technology as most of the vaccines developed against Covid-19 have applied relatively newer techniques. However, combining the seed with adjuvants, stabilisers and preservatives to form the final vaccine preparation might not be difficult for our vaccine manufacturers if they get required technical assistance from the innovator," Md Sayedur Rahman, chairman of pharmacology department at BSMMU, told The Daily Star yesterday.
He said if Bangladesh wants to produce vaccines from seed, substantial investment is needed to establish the required facilities of a global standard and to employ skilled technical manpower.
A senior epidemiologist, preferring not to be named, however, said the country's drug licensing authority -- Directorate General of Drug Administration (DGDA) -- needs to upgrade its biological lab to meet global standards.
"The DGDA's biological lab is not an A-category lab. It should be ungraded from category C to A," the epidemiologist said, adding that the World Health Organization certifies categories after inspection.
This certification of DGDA is required to export vaccines from Bangladesh.
The health ministry recently wrote to WHO requesting inspection of DGDA's biological lab as part of its upgradation process.
ABM Farooque, former dean of pharmacy faculty at Dhaka University, said the government has made a very good move, but it should also contact with other vaccine producers like Sputnik V.
"If pharmaceuticals companies get the technology, it would be great as Bangladesh can produce the vaccine. We can even bring vaccines in bulk and repackage here, which will also be a good move. We have some world-class pharmaceuticals companies and they are capable enough to produce it," he added.
Bangladesh received 70 lakh Oxford-AstraZeneca doses from Serum Institute of India as part of an agreement. The country has purchased three crore vaccine doses from Serum.
Apart from this, the country on January 21 received 20 lakh doses as a token of friendship from India and another 12 lakh from the same country that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi bought with him during his visit to Dhaka last month.
The Daily Star sent an email to AstraZeneca but did not get any response till filing of this report last night.
AstraZeneca has more than 20 supply partners in 15 countries and more than 20 analytical testing sites -- three manufacturing sites in UK, more than five in EU (Belgium, Netherland, Germany, Italy and Spain).
In South Asia, Serum Institute of India is the manufacturing partner of AstraZaneca
An official from AstraZaneca in Sweden told The Daily Star that apart from the government, some pharmaceuticals companies of Bangladesh are also contacting them.
He, however, declined to elaborate further.