On January 15, Nepal received an approval for the emergency use of “Covishield”, developed by the University of Oxford and Pharmaceutical Company AstraZeneca, and manufactured in India. The news came amidst Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali’s high level visit to New Delhi. All eyes were on Gyawali as it was his ﬁrst visit to New Delhi in over a year and after the boundary row in May. However, any prospects of boundary talks were scrapped after the spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs made a statement reiterating India’s “well known position”. However, the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines was also high on the agenda of the Gyawali’s visit to which sources disclosed that India expressed its commitment. Experts analyzed that the Foreign Minister’s first high level visit to New Delhi in over a year was not only a major upset for the Oli government but also indicated bilateral ties hitting rock bottom.
According to reports, the government of Nepal is considering signing an agreement on procuring vaccines manufactured in India to vaccinate 52% of Nepal’s population. Soon after, the Ministry of External Affairs of India also confirmed that Nepal is on the list of countries that it will start supplying the vaccines beginning January 20. However, experts have said that Nepal should not rely so heavily on one country and should consider diversifying its sources. They argue that any country manufacturing vaccines will only cater to other countries after they have enough doses to vaccinate their own population. Although the Government of Nepal had sent diplomatic notes to other countries producing COVID-19 vaccines such as China, Russia, USA, and the UK, India has been given priority bearing in mind logistics, pricing, and India’s commitment to facilitate the procurement process. According to the Health Ministry, the World Health Organization (WHO) will also provide vaccines for three percent of the population by the end of April.
The news of the arrival of vaccines in Nepal has been promising but experts have expressed concerns on issues such as transportation, storage, surveillance, distribution, etc. Over the past year, the government has been criticized for fumbling Nepal’s efforts to contain the virus as a result of poor coordination among the three tiers. Public health experts have said that the existing vaccine distribution systems are not designed for large scale vaccination programs and require the support of strong oversight mechanisms. Therefore, the role of the three tiers of government will be crucial in determining the success of the vaccination drive and the lack of strategy can create unforeseen issues.
Nepal kicked off the first phase of the nationwide COVID-19 immunization drive from January 27 using a portion of the 1 million doses of vaccines provided by India under grant assistance. According to reports, the Health Ministry prepared a list of 430,000 front liners including health workers, supporting staffers at health facilities, female community health volunteers, security personnel, sanitation workers, elderly people living in care homes, and prisoners who will start getting inoculated in 65 districts across the country. According to reports, Nepal is set to buy 4 million Covishield vaccines in the second phase of its inoculation drive.
Another challenge facing Nepal is the lack of trust in the vaccines procured. Frontline workers have expressed doubts about the efficacy of the Covishield vaccines. Health experts say that since COVID-19 vaccines were developed unconventionally and under a short period of time, misinformation and rumors have eroded public confidence in the vaccines. However, the WHO has stated that “it is important to build trust in the COVID-19 vaccines before people form an opinion against them”.
The confirmation of the new and faster spreading COVID-19 variant first identified in the UK, has arisen as yet another challenge in Nepal’s fight against COVID-19. Speculations began when three individuals who arrived from the UK, tested positive for COVID-19. Their swab samples were sent to the WHO’s collaborating center in Hong Kong which determined that all three returnees were infected with the new variant. The Health Ministry said that “the incident shows that the risk of infections are not over and people should continue to follow safety protocols”. As of February 3, the virus has claimed 2030 lives and infected 271,289 people in the country. While COVID-19 vaccines have reached Nepal just a year after the first case was identiﬁed in the country, if the government’s handling of the pandemic thus far is any indication, the vaccination campaign is likely to be riddled with challenges.