The country has got a shot in the arm for its Covid-19 inoculation campaign as 20 lakh doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, a gift from the Indian government, arrived in Dhaka yesterday.
The doses are expected to help Bangladesh roll out its mass vaccination programme on schedule in the first week of next month, said officials concerned.
Bangladesh has purchased three crore doses of the vaccine from Serum Institute of India (SII) for the campaign, and the first shipment of 50 lakh shots is expected on January 25.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina thanked her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi yesterday for the gift.
"I'm thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi for sending the vaccine as a gift," she said, addressing an event virtually. She also said the procured vaccine would arrive as planned.
The government has prepared a list of groups that would be prioritised during the first phase when 1.5 crore people would be inoculated. The campaign is likely to launch at over 300 centres across the capital.
The government is set to launch today an awareness campaign on vaccination.
Officials said India gifted Bangladesh 20 lakh doses of the vaccine in a goodwill gesture, which can be seen as another step in further cementing the strong friendship between the two countries.
A chartered plane of Air India carried the vaccine, branded Covishield, from Mumbai Airport to Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. The plane arrived shortly after 11:00am.
The doses were transported in cold boxes from the airport to a vaccine storage facility in Tejgaon under the supervision of officials from the Directorate General of Health Services and the Directorate General of Drug Administration.
Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Vikram Doraiswami, formally handed the shipment to Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and Health Minister Zahid Maleque at a ceremony on the premises of the state guesthouse Padma around 1:30pm.
The world is struggling to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and only a few countries have begun vaccination programmes.
The confirmed Covid-19 death toll in Bangladesh reached 7,966, while the number of detected infections was 5,30,271 as of yesterday.
A video conference for Saarc leaders was organised on March 15 last year at the initiative of the Indian PM. There, Hasina called for collaboration through utilisation of collective capacity, expertise and resources. The Saarc Covid-19 Emergency Fund was set up soon after that.
Addressing the handover ceremony yesterday, Doraiswami said the tranche of the vaccine was part of India's commitment at the highest level to its Neighbourhood First Policy.
"Together, India and Bangladesh, we will be able to fight the disease most effectively when we cooperate," he said.
Bangladesh received the vaccine shots four days after vaccination was launched in India on Saturday. This is among the fastest deliveries of vaccines that India has planned for anybody primarily because of the importance of ensuring that its friends receive immunity along with the Indians, he noted.
On Wednesday, India delivered the consignments of 1,50,000 doses of Covishield vaccines to Bhutan, 100,000 doses to the Maldives, and one million to Nepal yesterday.
Doraiswami said they hoped Bangladesh could kickstart the vaccination with this tranche of vaccine that would help improve immunity and resistance, and wished a good health of all Bangladeshis.
The foreign minister, the health minister and State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam expressed gratitude to the Indian PM and Indian people for the gift.
"Today is a historic day," Momen said, adding that India fought a war against Pakistan, helping Bangladesh achieve its independence in 1971, and has now gifted 2 million vaccine doses during the difficult times stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic.
The gift from India is also significant as Bangladesh celebrates Mujib Borsho, marking its 50th anniversary of independence, and 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations, he said.
Momen said Bangladesh was one of the countries which are beginning vaccination early. He claimed that Bangladesh had been number one in South Asia in successfully tackling the pandemic both in health and economy-wise.
Shahriar Alam said the relations between the two countries would improve further, and this message had been delivered to the people of Bangladesh and India through the gift in this difficult time.
Zahid Maleque said three crore more shots from Serum Institute of India, which is manufacturing the vaccine, would be arriving in Bangladesh in six months under a contract between the SII, Beximco Pharmaceuticals and the Bangladesh government.
He requested India to make sure that the 3 crore doses are delivered smoothly.
"We are supposed to get 50 lakh vaccines on January 25 or 26, but we can let you know the final date only after the flight schedule is confirmed," Maleque said.
He said the government's plan was almost final on starting the vaccination programme.
"We hope in the next six to seven days, we will conduct a trial. Prime Minister Hasina will let us know the date. She will join the inauguration through videoconference," the health minister said.
He called upon all not to do politics over vaccine, and not to spread any rumour on the vaccine import, vaccination and any possible side effects.
"It is a life-saving drug. We would call upon all not to confuse people. Those who go for conspiracy and politics with human life are not good people… we are saving lives, tackling Covid," he said.
The minister said the national committee on Covid-19 vaccine has prepared a rigorous plan, which is expected to be effective.
Bangladesh has a lot of experience in immunisation programme, and has eliminated a number of diseases, including polio and tetanus, through vaccination. Every year, crores of children are vaccinated in the country.
"We hope people are aware of it. They know vaccines might have some light side reactions. AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is a good one. It has no serious side reactions. If there is, the government will provide all treatment."