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India will be rolling out its Covid-19 vaccination drive on January 16, targeting 30 million frontline workers. Nepal, meanwhile, has just started preparations for the procurement of coronavirus vaccines. 

Now that the Health Ministry has completed all bureaucratic, legal and technical processes, the government on Sunday announced that the procurement process had begun. Under the pre-vaccine procurement measures, the ministry has built one warehouse in Kathmandu to store the vaccines and has plans to build one warehouse in each province. The ministry’s existing infrastructure is able to store 17,000,000 vaccine doses at temperatures of -2 to -8 degree Centigrade, according to Health Secretary Laxman Aryal. 

In his first appearance as health minister, Hridayesh Tripathi, at Sunday’s press conference, said that the ministry had dispatched diplomatic notes to India, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia for assistance on procuring vaccines and that the vaccination drive would begin “at the earliest”. Earlier, in November, the Nepal government had dispatched diplomatic notes to five vaccine-producing countries — India, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

“Apart from the vaccines we will get as a COVAX member, we have initiated processes to procure vaccines from India, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia,” said Tripathi. 

Tripathi was referring to the COVAX programme, which is part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Access to Covid-19 Tools programme. All countries participating in the programme, regardless of income level, will receive equal access to Covid-19 vaccines. But in addition to the WHO-mandated vaccines, Nepal is also pursuing bilateral deals with vaccine-producing countries, according to Tripathi. 

In his press conference, Tripathi made oblique references to apprehensions that the public might have when it comes to procurement on a large scale. In February 2020, then Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal was implicated in a $10 million corruption scandal concerning the procurement of medical supplies from China by the company Omni Business Corporate International.

Read also: The OMNI scandal and its impacts

“Trust us,” Tripathi said on Sunday. “The vaccine procurement process will be done through government-to-government deals and will be fully transparent.”

Tripathi, however, refrained from providing a clear timeline on when exactly the vaccines would arrive in Nepal and when vaccinations would begin. 

“A miracle might arrive by mid-February,” he said. 

The vaccination drive might have begun earlier if Nepal had not bungled its deals with vaccine manufacturers in China, Russia, and the UK. They had offered to conduct Phase 3 trials here, following which they would have had to provide millions of free vaccines to Nepalis.

As countries around the world launch their vaccination programmes, the attention of Nepal’s government has been captured by an unfolding political crisis, relegating the Covid-19 pandemic to the margins. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli dissolved Parliament on December 20, pushing the nation into a political quagmire.

Read also : Will Nepalis get anti-Covid vaccines on time?

Minister Tripathi assured that both vaccine procurement and vaccinations would not be affected by “recent political developments”. 

The ministry plans to begin vaccinations for three percent of the total population, including all health workers and frontline workers, in the first phase once it receives vaccines under the COVAX programme. In the second phase, it plans to vaccinate populations aged 55 years and above, along with critical patients, which stands at around 20 percent.

Tripathi said that the government would welcome the private sector in vaccine procurement once the government vaccinates critical and vulnerable populations. According to public health experts, 72 percent of the country’s population will need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity as children under the age of 14 cannot be vaccinated. 

According to briefings from the Health Ministry, 5,000 health officials and 52,000 female community health volunteers have been readied for the vaccination drive. As many as 16,000 vaccine centres across the country will be used for vaccination purposes. 

The Ministry of Finance, according to the health minister, has already allocated the funds required to procure the vaccines. Tripathi did not elaborate on how much money had been allocated, but it is estimated to be about NRs 42 billion.

Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, who will be visiting India on January 14 to participate in a meeting of the Nepal-India Joint Commission, is also expected to push for a vaccine deal

On Monday, Nepal reported 488 new Covid-19 infections, a significant fall from a peak of over 5,000 daily cases in mid-October. Many public health experts, however, are skeptical of the numbers. As many Nepalis have largely gone back to social gatherings and life as usual, despite the persistent threat of the coronavirus, infections are expected to be higher. Public health experts have also warned of a second wave in the country as the political crisis has led many political parties to carry out large-scale rallies with thousands of people gathering.