There was a time when Nepal was in a tight spot. Coronavirus cases were surging, and the country did not have the vaccine. Despite becoming one of the first countries to launch its vaccination drive, it scrambled to secure jabs, especially after India put a ban on vaccine exports citing its own need at home.
Nepal looked to almost every vaccine manufacturing country to get the jabs, to no avail.
Months later, Nepal appears to be on track to vaccinating all its eligible population, as vaccines are arriving in huge numbers.
But there’s a problem.
The government is facing logistical issues, including storage.
Now, the Ministry of Health and Population has communicated to COVAX, the international vaccine sharing scheme backed by the United Nations, and other vaccine providers to delay shipments.
An official at the Department of Health Services, who did not wish to be named, said: “If all the vaccines that are in the pipeline come at once, we will face storage problems.”
So far, Nepal has received 29,018,440 doses of Covid-19 vaccines, including 1,871,000 doses on Wednesday as the fourth consignment and part of the 6,039,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine committed by the facility.
According to the Health Ministry, 9,365,915 people (30.8 percent of the total population) have been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday.
Officials say if Nepal continues to receive the doses at the current pace, there will be huge storage problems and vaccines could expire before use.
As the doses of Covid-19 vaccine of separate companies vary, officials say they cannot determine the exact storage capacity.
“If a vaccine having 10 doses per vial like AstraZeneca comes, we can store up to 10 million doses at once,” said Badebabu Thapa, an official at the Logistic Management Section under the Department of Health Services. “If vaccines come in a single dose per vial like Vero Cell, we can store up to 3.5 million doses at one time throughout the country.”
The Health Ministry has been storing over 3.6 million doses of Moderna vaccine under minus 20 degrees Celsius, utilising the maximum available storage.
Officials said preparations are underway to set up facilities to store around 600,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is expected to be delivered soon from COVAX.
The facility alone has shipped over 12 million doses of vaccines so far.
The facility also supplied 3,651,600 doses of Moderna vaccine recently in three consignments. It is also supplying around 2.4 million doses of Vero Cell vaccine on December 20 and December 22.
In mid-November, officials said that over 34 million doses of different types of vaccines are expected to arrive in Nepal within 60 days.
“We have yet to receive documents of the final shipments, but we expect 2.4 million doses in two consignments,” said Thapa, the official at the Logistic Management Section. “We have been informed about the supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine on December 24.”
The Health Ministry said that 640,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are expected to arrive on December 24.
“Yes, we are getting vaccines from various countries and COVAX,” Dr Bibek Kumar Lal, director at the Family Welfare Division of the Department of Health Services, told the Post. “We all know that our storage capacity is limited and it will be a problem if we get more doses than we can store.”
Among the doses Nepal has received so far, some are near their expiry dates.
Several countries of Africa have wasted millions of doses, as they were shipped at the last hour by rich countries after hoarding them until the late hour.
According to the BBC, Malawi destroyed almost 20,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, while South Sudan announced it would destroy 59,000 doses.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, meanwhile, said it could not use most of the 1.7 million AstraZeneca doses it received under the global COVAX scheme. South Sudan is also handing back 72,000 doses it got through COVAX.
Up to 1 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine were wasted in Nigeria last month.
After hoarding them, developed countries will now waste 241 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, according to media reports.
“We do not want to waste the precious jabs, so we are requesting aid agencies to delay shipments,” said Lal. “But requesting for a delay in supply does not mean that we do not have to do anything to speed up the vaccination pace.”
Nepal needs to vaccinate around 78 percent of its over 30 million estimated population, or around 25 million people, as per the government’s new plan that includes vaccinating those aged between 12 and 18 years.
Nepal has been using its existing storage facility meant for children’s vaccines to store the jabs.
“We have been upgrading our storage capacity,” said Lal. “But it is not possible to increase the capacity almost immediately.”
UNICEF and the Japan government have been helping the Health Ministry set up more vaccine storage.
Public health experts say that authorities should speed up the vaccination pace and make a decision on administering booster shots at the earliest, rather than calling on agencies to delay supplies.
“We are at high risk of another wave of the pandemic, whether it is caused by the Delta variant circulating in communities or the latest Omicron variant,” said Dr Krishna Man Shakya, vice president of Nepal Public Health Association. “Authorities concerned should have explored ways to speed up vaccination pace and increase storage capacity.”
As complacency has been growing, Shakya warned that another wave of the pandemic is imminent.
Lately crowds have been increasing everywhere. Mask mandate seems to have been removed and people are not paying attention to necessary safety protocols.
Schools and colleges have resumed in-person classes, a wedding season is underway, and political rallies and gatherings have increased due to national conventions of major political parties.
Authorities concerned too seem indifferent towards the risks of the existing variant of the virus and the new variant, which have wreaked havoc in several countries, including South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Doctors say health facilities could be overwhelmed again if another wave similar to the first and second were to hit the country again. And what is concerning, according to doctors, is that Omicron has been spreading rapidly in many countries across the globe.
“If the Health Ministry had requested for delay in shipments of the vaccine, it is unfortunate,” said Dr Baburam Marasini, former director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division. “Officials have to answer to the public if another devastating wave of the pandemic hits the country.”