The government has decided to administer Covid-19 vaccines to all the citizens free of cost once those are procured.

As per the decision at a high-level meeting recently, the government will purchase vaccines as soon as those are out in the market and administer those to all like it does under the existing immunisation programmes, said finance ministry officials.

The finance ministry has already sought $2 billion in financial assistance from four development partners to purchase, store, transport and administer the vaccines.

It has written to the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, seeking from them $500 million each. 

In the letters to the multilateral lenders, the ministry said the government decided to procure and administer the vaccines at its own cost.

It also mentioned that large-scale commercial production of the vaccine is expected by the end of this year.

“In this context, a major initiative is afoot to import vaccines to Bangladesh in order to make the vaccines available for all the citizens,” the ministry wrote.

Seeking anonymity, a top official of the finance ministry, told The Daily Star, “We have already sent letters to the development partners, seeking $2 billion in financial assistance. We are still not sure how much we will get. Whatever amount we get, the rest will be managed from government funds.”

A special allocation of Tk 12,000 crore was made in this year’s budget for procuring medical supplies for emergency response to Covid-19, the official mentioned.

Once procured, the vaccines will be administered to people as it’s done under the existing vaccination programmes to prevent diseases like measles, polio and diphtheria, the official added.

Finance ministry officials said a rough estimate shows that Bangladesh will require $1.65 billion to $2 billion to bring its population of 165 million under the Covid-19 vaccination coverage. Each person is likely to need two shots which may cost $10-12.

They further said the government is asking for low-interest soft loans from the development partners.

Contacted, Md Abdul Mannan, secretary at the Health Services Division of the health ministry, said, “The vaccines should be given to all free of cost.”

He, however, said those would be given as per the government’s policy guidelines which are yet to be finalised.

At a virtual meeting with the WB vice president for the South Asia region on Thursday, Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal urged the global lender to take necessary steps to expedite the disbursement of assistance on the basis of population.

“Bangladesh ranks third among the International Development Association (IDA) countries in terms of population,” the minister noted.

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a heavy toll on human lives and businesses across the globe. Rapid access to vaccine doses can bring outbreaks under control and also help avert economic shocks that may send more people back into poverty.

The World Health Organization has said that a vaccine against the novel coronavirus will be ready for registration by the end of this year or early next year at the earliest.

Vaccines typically require years of research and testing before reaching clinics, but scientists are racing to produce a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine by next year.

The first vaccine safety trial for humans began in March and six vaccine candidates have so far been approved for limited use. At least 12 more have reached the final stages of testing as of October 24, according to the New York Times Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker.

Though the government has not made a deal with any country to get a Covid-19 vaccine at the early stage, health ministry officials insist that they are in talks with the makers of five front-running vaccine candidates.

On September 26, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked the world community to treat the Covid-19 vaccine as a “global public good” and urged the United Nations to ensure its timely availability to all countries at the same time.

Bangladesh also could get 20 percent of the vaccines it needs from the WHO and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation under the COVAX Facility, a mechanism designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines worldwide.

COVAX currently covers nine vaccine candidates, and its aim is to secure supply and delivery of two billion shots by the end of 2021 to over 170 countries that have signed up for vaccines.