Bhutan is hopeful of lifting restrictions on tourism after second dose of COVID-19 vaccination
It’s been 9-week since the nationwide COVID-19 vaccination campaign in Bhutan.
The first dose of Covishield vaccines were administered in Bhutan on March 27. As per World Health Organisation (WHO)’s guideline, the recommended gap between the first and second dose is 8 to 12 weeks.
To date, 95 percent of the eligible population in Bhutan had already received the first dose of vaccines. The record-breaking nationwide campaign was carried out with Oxford-AstraZeneca (Covishield) vaccines gifted by the government of India. However, India was faced with the worst COVID-19 surge in April.
During the National Assembly held on 28 May, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that India had assured their support for the second dose of vaccinations. However, the Prime Minister mentioned that it will be discourteous to pressure the Indian government for the vaccines given its situation. The Bhutan government has reached out to 15 other countries for assistance.
With a likelihood of delay in the delivery of the second dose, Bhutanese are concerned as to whether the first dose of the vaccine would become ineffective. Member of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NI-TAG), Dr Sonam Wangchuk, said that a delay for the second dose by a few weeks would not have any implication.
He said that while the plan was still to provide the booster dose between 8-12 weeks after the first dose, there is emerging evidence where some countries had extended the gap to 16 weeks.
“Therefore, a delay by a few weeks should not be an issue for us. This is also because we have already achieved a high level of coverage in the first round, meaning that the majority of the population have received the first dose, thereby, developing antibodies.” said Dr Sonam Wangchuk.
The first dose of vaccination is still ongoing for new individuals who become eligible such as people turning 18 years old, those previously in quarantine, as well as the deferred cases of people with existing medical conditions.
On 25th May, Bhutan received the first tranche of 5,850 doses of Pzifer-BioNtech vaccines under the COVAX-Facility in the region. COVAX is a World Health Organisation (WHO) initiative aiming to get coronavirus vaccines to poorer, developing countries.
Given the limited number of doses, the vaccines that arrived would be enough to inoculate just over 2,900 individuals (two doses for each person). Dr Sonam Wangchuk shared that for now, no directives had come from the ministry as to who would receive the Pfizer vaccines.
“This is a very small amount for now so I would suggest that we can vaccinate those children in high-risk thromdes like Phuentsholing and Gelephu,” he said. “It is definitely not going to cover all but if we have to start, I think this would be right.”
“There are some countries who have vaccinated children as young as 12 years but for now, we are following the WHO recommendation which says Pfizer is approved for 16 years and above.” said Dr Sonam Wangchuk.
He added that the NI-TAG had to deliberate on the vaccination plan.
The government has been working with countries bilaterally to secure more Pfizer doses to cover all the children in the country. Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji earlier said that the government has ordered about 200,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine from Pfizer Inc., the American multinational pharmaceutical corporation.
Bhutan is also expected to receive 108,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines from the COVAX Facility soon. The procurement of the vaccine and other logistical arrangements including strengthening the national cold chain system for Covid-19 is being carried out by UNICEF.
During the National Assembly on Jun 1, Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji shared that there are high chances of allowing few tourists to enter into the country after Bhutan conduct the second dose of COVID-19 vaccination programme.