Bhutan’s Health Minister Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo has said the number of COVID-19 cases of the Delta variant from towns bordering India has been rising, with the country registering more than 2,000 cases, though only one fatality has been recorded so far.
The spurt in cases comes even as the country is facing a worrying vaccine gap to immunise its eligible population after India’s ban on exports after its deadly second wave. Bhutan has reached out to at least 16 countries other than India in the last few weeks.
In an effort to step up “non-pharmaceutical” solutions, even Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has been travelling by road and foot to remote villages around the country to reinforce the use of masks and sanitizing hands.
“I think the global community must understand that Bhutan does not have a mature health system, like many of the countries in the region do, and for example, we have only one ICU doctor. So if our health systems were to get overwhelmed, it would basically collapse our system,” Ms. Wangmo explained.
Speaking to The Hindu from Thimpu, Ms Wangmo said the country was open to all options to ensure that its citizens get their second dose within the 14 week deadline. This includes “mixing and matching” or heterologous inoculation, using a different second vaccine.
“Above all, it is also a very good opportunity to generate some very good scientific data as well,” Ms. Wangmo added.
The Modi government had sent 5,50,000 Covishield doses as part of its “Vaccine Maitri” programme to Bhutan by March 21. With the first tranche delivered and the second dose promised within “eight to twelve weeks”, the Bhutanese government set about vaccinating nearly 93% of its adult population between March 27 and April 6.
The “Vaccine Maitri” programme was however, suspended in the wake of the deadly second Covid wave that hit India in late March.
In April, after cases in India began to rise, New Delhi reportedly informed Bhutan there would be a delay, but Bhutan still hoped that the doses would be delivered by the end of June, when 14 weeks would have elapsed.
Ms. Wangmo said that after consulting a few international experts the government has now decided to extend the gap to 16 weeks, but needs the second doses delivered by mid-July at the very latest for the vaccines to be efficacious.
While the global COVAX alliance has promised to send 20% of Bhutan’s requirement of AstraZeneca vaccines, these might only be delivered by August, and the U.S.’s announcement on June 21 that it would distribute 16 million U.S.-made (Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) vaccines in Asian countries including Bhutan has not clarified when these may arrive.
India hit record highs in vaccine production and distribution last week, but the government has “no plans currently” to restart its Vaccine Maitri initiative for Bhutan, three senior officials aware of the vaccine export negotiations told The Hindu.
“India is going through a difficult time right now. So, it is morally not right to put such pressure,” Ms. Wangmo said, when asked if Bhutan had made any fresh appeals for help from New Delhi.
“If India was comfortable, I know India would come forward to help us, based on the long diplomatic relations that we have with India, and more importantly the friendship that we have with India. I think there would not be an ounce of hesitation,” she added.