ECONOMYNEXT – A message of unknown origin that had circulated among Narahenpita residents resulted in a large group of people gathering outside the Abhayarama temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 29, 30 demanding their second dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, chief incumbent Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero said.
No government official had asked the public to go to the temple premises to receive their second shot, the influential monk told EconomyNext.
A delay in securing AtsraZeneca doses for some 600,000 Sri Lankans who are awaiting their second jab had led to people desperately seeking out the vaccine on their own, he said.
Ananda thero said no health services staff was present at the temple when people started turning up.
“People came looking for the second jab, because this was where the first one was rolled out,” the thero said.
“People are scared. They’re not looking for money. They’re looking to save their lives,” he added.
Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi told reporters on May 30 that the inoculation programme at the temple was not communicated to the ministry.
The Abhayaramaya is one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful Buddhist temples with close ties to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka received 1,264,000 doses of the Covishield-branded version of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII). Half a million of these were donated by the Indian government, with another half directly purchased by the State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC) from SII. The remaining 264,000 was received through the World Health Organisation (WHO)-led COVAX facility.
Since January 29, Sri Lanka has administered the first dose of Covishield to 925,242 citizens, leaving 338,758 doses. However, authorities claim that 345,789 people – some 7,000 more than the number of doses as per official data – have received the second jab so far. But according to Minister Wanniarchachi, the number of doses left after the first-dose rollout is 356,730.
If her number is accurate, Sri Lanka should have in its possession roughly 11,000 doses of the vaccine (356,730 – 345,789).
The minister told reporters on May 30 that the doses of AstraZeneca left in the country were reserved solely for cancer and kidney patients.
“Because there were people gathering outside the temple and there was a risk of the virus spreading there, we had to release some of those doses that were in storage to bring the situation under control,” she said.
According to the health ministry’s epidemiology unit’s website, 196 people received their second dose at the Abhayarama over the weekend.
On April 30, Chief Epidemiologist Dr Sudath Samaraweera told reporters that Sri Lanka will not receive the next consignment of the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine at the expected window due to the prevailing situation in India.
The COVAX facility too is struggling to acquire vaccines from SII which is under pressure to deliver vaccines to epidemic-ravaged India, Samaraweera said in an earlier report.
The Abhayarama incumbent blamed the uncertainty over vaccination on the government.
“This is all because the government and the ministry of health do not have a proper plan in place for vaccination,” he said, speaking to EconmyNext.
Meanwhile, Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr Hemantha Herath commenting on the situation said the scarcity of vaccines is not in the control of the government. He asked the public to be patient.
“This happens due to uncertainty in supply,” Herath told reporters on May 31.
“It’s not something the government can control,” he added.
According to Herath, it is with this reality in mind that authorities have started targeted vaccination in Sri Lanka.
“We ask the general public to not rush to vaccination centres unless you have been asked to come,” he said.
Ananda thero, however, said people had gathered to the temple for a third day running on May 31, hoping to receive the second dose of the increasingly elusive vaccine. (Colombo/ May 31/2021)