Private vaccinations in Pakistan draw criticism

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The coronavirus was tearing Pakistan apart and Muhammad Nasir Chaudhry was worried. Long lines and tight supplies hampered the government’s free vaccination campaign. The newspapers were filled with reports of well-connected people skipping the line for a free dose.

Then Mr. Chaudhry, a 35-year-old government consultant, found he could pay himself to skip the long lines. He signed up to take two doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine for around $ 80 at a private hospital. That’s a lot of money in a country where the average worker earns around $ 110 a month, but Mr. Chaudhry was willing to commit.

Critics attacked these private sales in Pakistan and around the world, saying they only allowed inoculations to the wealthy. But in Pakistan, as elsewhere, tight supplies have hampered these efforts. Private hospitals are running out of supplies and Mr. Chaudhry has still not been vaccinated.

“I am willing to pay double the price of the vaccine, but I don’t want to wait over and over again,” Chaudhry said.

Access to the coronavirus vaccine has thrown a harsh light on global inequalities. The United States and other wealthy countries have bought most of the world’s vaccine stocks to protect their own populations, leaving millions of doses stored and, in some places, unused. Less developed countries are scrambling over what is left.

To speed up vaccinations, some countries have allowed the private sale of doses. But these campaigns have been marred by supply issues and complaints that they simply reflect global disparities.

“The Pakistani example is a microcosm of what has gone wrong with the global response – where wealth alone has mostly shaped who has access to it,” said Zain Rizvi, access to medicines expert at Public Citizen, an advocacy group from Washington, DC. an email. “Ending the pandemic will require the global community to do much more than that.”

India sells vaccines to private hospitals, although they are scrambling to find supplies now that the pandemic is so severe there. Kenya allowed private sales, then blocked them for fear that counterfeit vaccines could be sold. In the United States, some well-connected companies, like Bloomberg, have secured doses for employees.

Indonesia on Tuesday allowed companies to buy vaccines from the government to vaccinate employees and their families free of charge. The only vaccine approved for this program to date is that manufactured by Sinopharm.

Pakistan says the private program could make more free photos accessible to low-income people. By purchasing doses of the Russian-made Sputnik 5 vaccine, the country’s wealthy would not need to get the free doses, which are made by Sinopharm of China. Some people would prefer to be vaccinated in a private hospital as it is generally believed that they are comparatively better organized and more efficient than overwhelmed public facilities.

Pakistan’s needs are increasing. The country of nearly 220 million people reports more than 2,500 new infections a day, but its low detection rate suggests that many more cases remain undetected. The government has tightened restrictions and limited public gatherings.

But the government’s vaccination campaign has been slow. He started giving doses to people over 40 this month. Younger children may need to wait several months.

Tight global supplies are to blame, said Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, Pakistan’s information minister. In addition to the Sputnik and Sinopharm vaccines, Pakistan earlier this month received 1.3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Covax, the international body that promotes vaccinations, and is expected to receive 3.5 million doses of the vaccine. Sinovac from China by the end of May. .

Private sales have sparked a heated debate in a country where the economy has stagnated due to the pandemic and long-standing issues like lack of foreign investment and heavy public debt. Critics say the move will deepen divisions within the country, where much of society lives below the poverty line.

“The government has not thought about the suffering of the poor while allowing importers to sell the vaccine,” said Dr Mirza Ali Azhar, a leader of the Pakistan Medical Association, the national medical organization. “These discriminatory policies will increase the sense of deprivation among poor young people, especially those with weakened immune systems.”

Mr. Chaudhry, the Minister of Information, played down the issue of prices by saying that private vaccines could not meet the needs of the public anyway.

The initiative ran into another problem: hospitals can’t find vaccines to buy. Demand has been strong. The government sets a price cap, but has been stuck in a dispute with private importers over how much it should be.

In April, in the city of Karachi, long lines formed when two private hospitals began selling the Sputnik V vaccine to walk-in people. Private hospitals in Islamabad, the capital, and Lahore faced a similar influx of people and ran out within days. Hospitals in major cities have now stopped accepting walk-in visits and online registration has also been suspended.

Sputnik V is not the only vaccine the government allows for private sale. A single dose shot made by CanSino Biologics of China costs around $ 28. Demand has been lower due to greater public confidence in the Russian vaccine. Still, supplies quickly ran out after doses of CanSino went on sale last month. The government has announced that 13.2 million more doses will arrive in June.

AGP Limited, a private pharmaceutical company that imported 50,000 doses of Sputnik, urges patience.

“Sputnik V has received an overwhelming response in Pakistan with thousands of people vaccinated in just a few days and an even higher number of confirmed records in hospitals across Pakistan,” said Umair Mukhtar, a senior AGP official. Limited. He said the company has placed large orders for more.

The government’s price dispute could delay further expansion. The drug regulator wants Sputnik V to be sold at a lower price. AGP obtained an interim court order on April 1 to sell the vaccine until a final price was set.

For those who can afford the doses, the frustration grows. Junaid Jahangir, an Islamabad-based lawyer, said several of his friends were privately vaccinated. He signed up at a private lab for Sputnik V, but received a text message later saying the vaccination campaign was on hold.

“I am denied a fair chance to fight this virus if I end up getting infected,” Jahangir said. “The demand is there, and I don’t see what could be the reason for the inefficient supply.”

Some of the people who paid for private doses justified their decision by citing reports in the media that some well-connected people were skipping the line to get free public doses. In May, at least 18 low-level health workers were suspended by authorities in Lahore for vaccinating people outside their towers after accepting bribes.

Iffat Omar, actor and talk show host, publicly apologized in April for getting ahead of the game to get the vaccine. “I’m sorry,” she said on Twitter. “I’m ashamed. I apologize from the bottom of my heart. I will repent.

Fiza Batool Gilani, an entrepreneur and the daughter of Yusuf Raza Gilani, the former prime minister, said she knew several young people who had lined up and got the free government vaccine in recent weeks.

“I was offered a free vaccine in turn, but I refused because I wanted to take advantage of the private vaccine,” Ms. Gilani said. Wealthy people would have to pay for their doses, she said, adding that her family would pay for CanSino’s injections for her household staff.

Many people, like Tehmina Sadaf, do not have this option.

Ms. Sadaf, 35, lives with her husband and a seven-year-old son in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad. Her husband is a clergyman in a mosque. She gives Koran lessons to young children. She said the pandemic had negatively impacted the family’s income of around $ 128 per month. “After paying the rent for the house and the electricity bill, we don’t have much left,” she says.

She had doubts about the public vaccine, “but the price of the private vaccine is very high,” she said. “It should have been lower so poor people like us could afford it as well.”

Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting from Karachi, Pakistan. Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono contribution to reports.

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