Threat of a new Covid-19 wave looms large amid vaccine shortage in Nepal

Pravin Bhatta / January 10, 2023

The Health Ministry says it will announce a new vaccination campaign after receiving a fresh batch of vaccines.

Three years into the pandemic, the world has seen various variants and strains of Covid-19. While the Delta variant, which caused the second wave of the pandemic, was deadly, the Omicron variant, which caused the third wave, was comparatively less severe, although it spread fast and widely. The last variant that has been around was November 2021, except for Omicron and its sub-variants. 

Recently, China was forced to abandon its zero-Covid policy because of public resistance. The northern neighbour even stopped requiring 48 hours of negative tests to travel from one province to another. It has opened borders for international passengers without any Covid-19 restrictions and quarantine from January 8. China Southern Airlines has resumed its flight operations from Guangzhou to Kathmandu from November 29. The northern Rasuwagadhi Border with China opened after 35 months to export eight containers to China. 

A representative image of Covid-19. Photo: Unsplash.

The Chinese move to ease Covid-19 restrictions has left several countries baffled, and they have imposed restrictions on people travelling from China. The BF.7 variant of Omicron driving the current spike in China has yet to be detected in Nepal. Meanwhile, the Government of Nepal has said it has plans to curb a possible outbreak amid a low national caseload. On December 24, the Ministry of Health and Population, through a press release, urged people to use masks, follow Covid-19 safety precautions, and get vaccinated. As the possibility of a surge in the immediate future becomes apparent, people have started to rush to local health desks to get their booster doses, only to come back disappointed. 

“We don’t have vaccines in the central stock for booster doses,” Dr Samir Kumar Adhikari, Head of the Health Emergency Operation Center, told South Asia Check about the availability of booster doses. However, Dr Adhikari said the vaccines they distributed to local levels may be available because “the data of usage and damage has not yet been fully updated.”  

Recently, the Drug Advisory Committee granted emergency use of the Pfizer BioNtech bivalent vaccine, which contains parts of original strains and the Omicron variant. Nepal is yet to receive 1.5 million doses of this bivalent vaccine through the COVAX facility. According to Dr Adhikari, the entire process of acquiring the vaccines has been completed. “Once received, we will continue our vaccination program, focusing on targeted groups.” 

The ministry prioritises immunocompromised and unvaccinated people for upcoming vaccination campaigns, but it is a challenge reaching those people, said Dr Adhikari.

In Nepal today, the frequency of Polymerized Chain Reaction (PCR) tests for Covid-19 has declined below 1,000 per day, and the national caseload is limited to two digits. While the nationwide Covid-19 tally remained at 24  on January 9,  2023, only three new cases were reported that day. 

As neighbouring India reports a  marginal increase in cases, experts warn that the caseload may rise in Nepal anytime soon. “The ministry has been continuously working to mitigate the risks,” said Dr Adhikari. “Those found infected during checks at the border are closely monitored to curb a possible new wave of Covid-19.”

The decline in the number of cases cannot be considered an end to the pandemic, says Anup Subedee, an infectious disease specialist based in Kathmandu. “Covid-19 is still there, and we are at risk.” For Dr Subedee, the key to understanding the extent of the pandemic at present is reliable data. The elusive data from China continues to be a cause of concern, with the World Health Organisation (WHO), on December 30, 2022, asking China to share specific and real-time data regularly. 

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