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Pakistan’s Private Vaccinations Draw Criticism

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Coronavirus penetrated Pakistan and Muhammad Nasir Chaudhry was concerned. Long lines and scarce supplies plagued the government’s free vaccination campaign. The newspapers were filled with reports of well-connected people jumping in for a free dose.

Then Mr. Chaudhry, a 35-year-old government adviser, discovered that he could pay to skip the long lines himself. He signed up to take two doses of the Russia-made Sputnik V vaccine for about $ 80 from a private hospital. That’s a lot of money in a country where the average worker makes about $ 110 a month, but Mr. Chaudhry was ready to make the commitment.

Critics have attacked such private sales in Pakistan and around the world, claiming that they only make vaccinations available to the rich. But in Pakistan, as elsewhere, scarce supplies have hampered these efforts. The private hospitals are no longer serviced and Mr Chaudhry has still not been vaccinated.

“I’m willing to pay double the price for the vaccine, but I don’t want to keep waiting,” said Chaudhry.

Access to the coronavirus vaccine has shed a lot of light on global inequality. The United States and other rich countries have bought up most of the world’s vaccine supplies to protect their own people and stored millions of doses and left them in places unused. Less developed countries fight over what is left.

To speed up vaccination, some countries have allowed private sales of cans. However, these campaigns have been troubled by supply issues and complaints that merely reflect global differences.

“The Pakistani example is a microcosm of what went wrong with the global response – where prosperity alone has primarily shaped access,” said Zain Rizvi, drug access expert at Public Citizen, a Washington advocacy group. DC, in an email. “To end the pandemic, the world community needs to do a lot more than just that.”

India is selling vaccines to private hospitals, although they are looking for supplies now that the pandemic is so severe there. Kenya approved and then blocked private sales over fears that counterfeit vaccines would be sold. In the United States, some well-connected companies like Bloomberg have secured cans for employees.

Indonesia on Tuesday allowed companies to buy vaccines from the government to vaccinate employees and family members for free. The only vaccine approved for this program to date is a Sinopharm vaccine.

Pakistan says the private program could provide more free footage to low-income people. By buying doses of the Russia-made Sputnik 5 vaccine, the country’s rich would not have to get the free doses made by Sinopharm of China. Some people would prefer to get vaccinated in a private hospital as it is widely believed that they are comparatively better organized and more efficient than overburdened government facilities.

Pakistan’s demand is growing. The country of nearly 220 million people reports more than 2,500 new infections daily, but the low testing rate suggests that many more cases go undetected. The government has tightened restrictions and restricted public gatherings.

However, the government’s vaccination campaign has been slow. It has started giving doses to people over 40 this month. Younger people may have to wait several months.

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

Updated

May 22, 2021, 11:01 a.m. ET

Private sales sparked a fiery debate in a country where the economy has stalled from the pandemic and long-standing problems such as lack of foreign investment and high national debt. Critics say the decision will deepen divisions within the country, where much of society lives below the poverty line.

“The government did not think about the suffering of the poor while allowing importers to sell the vaccine,” said Dr. Mirza Ali Azhar, a director of the Pakistan Medical Association, the nationwide medical professional organization. “Such discriminatory policies will increase feelings of disadvantage among poor young people, especially those with weak immune systems.”

Information minister, Mr Chaudhry, downplayed the pricing problem, saying that private vaccines could not respond to public needs anyway.

The initiative has encountered another problem: hospitals cannot find vaccines for sale. The demand was strong. The government sets a price cap but has been embroiled in a dispute with private importers over how much that should be.

Long lines formed in Karachi city in April when two private hospitals began selling the Sputnik V vaccine to walk-ins. Private hospitals in Islamabad, the capital, and Lahore faced a similar onslaught of people and were in short supply within days. Hospitals in major cities have stopped taking walk-ins and online registration has also been suspended.

Sputnik V isn’t the only vaccine the government is selling privately. A one-time shot of CanSino Biologics from China costs around $ 28. Demand was weaker due to greater public confidence in the Russian vaccine. Even so, supplies quickly sold out after the CanSino cans went on sale last month. The government has announced that another 13.2 million cans will arrive in June.

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

“Sputnik V received an overwhelming response in Pakistan: thousands of people were vaccinated in a matter of days, and an even higher number of registrations were confirmed in hospitals across Pakistan,” said Umair Mukhtar, a senior official at AGP Limited. He said the company had placed large orders for more.

The state price dispute could delay further expansion. The Medicines Agency wants Sputnik V to be sold at a lower price. AGP received an injunction to sell the vaccine on April 1, pending a final price.

For those who can afford the cans, frustration grows. Junaid Jahangir, an Islamabad-based lawyer, said several of his friends had been given private vaccinations. He registered with a private laboratory for Sputnik V, but later received a text message stating that the vaccination campaign had been interrupted.

“I will be denied a fair chance to fight this virus if I get infected,” Jahangir said. “The demand is there and I don’t see what could possibly be the reason for the inefficiency of the supply.”

Some of the people who paid for private cans based their decision on media reports that some well-connected people jumped the line to get free public cans. In May, Lahore authorities suspended at least 18 low-ranking health workers for vaccinating people after accepting out of line bribes.

Actor and talk show host Iffat Omar publicly apologized in April for being ahead of the curve to get the vaccine. “I’m sorry,” she said on Twitter. “I am ashamed. I apologize with all my heart. I will repent.”

Fiza Batool Gilani, an entrepreneur and daughter of Yusuf Raza Gilani, the former prime minister, said she knows several young people who have queued and received the free government vaccine in recent weeks.

“I was offered a free vaccine myself, but declined because I wanted to get the private vaccine,” said Ms. Gilani. Wealthy people should pay for their cans, she said, adding that for CanSino shots, her family would pay for housekeeping.

Many people like Tehmina Sadaf don’t 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 teaches Koran to young children. She said the pandemic had a negative impact on family income by around $ 128 a month. “After we pay the rent and the electricity bill, we don’t have much choice,” she said.

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

Zia ur-Rehman reported from Karachi, Pakistan. Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono contributed to the coverage.

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