EU regulator approves Pfizer-BionTech vaccine; first shipment arrives in Singapore; what are Sri Lanka’s plans?

ECONOMYNEXT – The European Medicines Agency, the European Union (EU)’s medical product regulator, has approved the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine for COVID-19 in 27 EU states, the BBC reported.

The European Commission, too, formally approved the vaccine hours after the EMA’s decision, and according to the BBC, distribution for some 448 million inhabitants in the EU could begin as early as Sunday (27).

Meanwhile, the first batch of the Pfizer-BionTech arrived in Singapore last evening, making Singapore the first country in Asia to receive the novel coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BionTech. The city-state has the cold chain facilities necessary to store and transport the vaccine which needs to be stored in minus 70 degree Celsius.

Sri Lanka has yet to announce a concrete plan to acquire a COVID-19 vaccine. However, discussions are reportedly underway to obtain a Rs 10 billion soft loan from the World Bank to purchase a suitable vaccine. The government is also looking at the Asian Development Bank and the EU for support in this regard, media reports said.

State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control Sudarshini Fernandopulle told EconomyNext last Friday (18) that it is still early days. Sri Lanka’s health authorities, she said, have focused their attention on the different vaccines developed by international pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies but, in the absence of sufficient data, a decision has yet to be made.

“It is too soon to tell which vaccines would be the best for our country and would be compatible with our citizens,” she said.

The state minister said the government has been in talks with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure that 20 percent of the population will receive a COVID-19 vaccine for free through the COVAX initiative once the WHO has approved a vaccine.

COVAX, a global initiative spearheaded by Gavi, an international vaccine alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), aims to equitably cover 20 percent of a signatory nation’s vaccine needs, irrespective of income level. Some 190 countries have signed up for the programme, including wealthy nations such as the UK and Canada.

The WHO said in a statement on Friday (18) that COVAX had arrangements in place to access nearly two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

“For the vast majority of these deals, COVAX has guaranteed access to a portion of the first wave of production, followed by volume scales as further supply becomes available. The arrangements announced today will enable all participating economies to have access to doses in the first half of 2021, with first deliveries anticipated to begin in the first quarter of 2021 – contingent upon regulatory approvals and countries’ readiness for delivery,” the statement said.

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Sri Lanka’s readiness for delivery is unclear, at best. State Minister Fernandopulle said the country’s infrastructure shortcomings such as cold chain issues also present practical difficulties with regard to storing a vaccine, particularly the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine.

“Transporting that vaccine at that temperature is not very practical in Sri Lanka,” she said

Pointing to a lack of clarity in the effectiveness of the vaccines currently being rolled out in the UK and elsewhere, Fernandopulle said more information was needed. For instance, both the Pfizer-BionTech and Moderna vaccines are said to be 95% effective. However, as pointed out by the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Forum of Sri Lanka (VIDFSL), these are preliminary phase three results that have yet to be peer-reviewed.

The state minister noted that the duration of immunity to the novel coronavirus following vaccination is also unclear.

“We’re not told how many times we have to get it. For example, we know the polio vaccine is for a lifetime. With this, we don’t know,” she said.

According to Fernandopulle, in the event a vaccine eventually arrives in the island, high risk groups and frontline workers as well as members of the armed forces and police will be given priority.

The minister gave an assurance that Sri Lanka will import a vaccine that is deemed best suited for the country, though she did not commit to a timeline. The Sunday Times reported quoting a government official today that Sri Lanka is in talks with the World Bank to secure a Rs 10 billion loan to purchase a vaccine.

“We are still studying this. We will bring in the best and the safest vaccine for patients and citizens in the country as soon as possible. Financially we are under no stress. Funds will be given by the World Bank. The president, too, provides his fullest support,” she added. (Colombo/Dec22/2020)

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