In an interview the Beximco Group’s Vice-Chairman and premier’s Private Industry and Investment Affairs Adviser Salman F Rahman attributed the prime minister’s foresightedness for early vaccine availability
Bangladesh on Monday received the first consignment of five million doses of Covishield from India under a procurement agreement, four days after New Delhi sent as “gift” two million doses of same Oxford-AstraZeneca inoculates co-manufactured by India’s Serum Institute.
The shipment was part of 30 million vaccine doses to reach the country under a tripartite agreement among Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd Serum Institute and the Bangladesh government.
Beximco Group’s Vice-Chairman and Premier’s Private Industry and Investment affairs Adviser Salman F Rahman talked to BSS in an exclusive interview detailing the background of the vaccine affair.
He attributed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s foresightedness for the early availability of the inoculates in a massive scale in Bangladesh compared to most other countries in the neighbourhood and elsewhere.
Following the verbatim of the interview:
Question: The first lot of 30 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines that Bangladesh purchased from India’s Serum Institute has arrived. Bangladesh’s mass vaccination programme is relatively ahead of its peer countries in South Asia and beyond.
How has this feat been achieved?
Salman F Rahman: In my opinion, it was possible only because of the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s foresightedness and courage. The entire world is having issues with the availability of vaccines.
Pfizer or AstraZeneca have recently said the deliveries of vaccines to the European Union (EU) will be lower than expected. Countries such as South Korea, Japan and Thailand or Pakistan haven’t even begun any vaccination program.
By contrast, we are poised to begin the vaccination soon, not symbolically but in a planned manner.
How did Beximco get involved in the vaccine affair?
A: India’s Serum Institute is the world’s largest vaccine producer licensed to produce Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine for India and developing countries at an equitable price.
When Beximco approached them to become their sole distributor in Bangladesh, they were reluctant.
They themselves were unsure of timely delivery of vaccines.
We insisted nonetheless, and they agreed to make us their sole distributor in Bangladesh under one condition.
They told us since they needed to expand their production capacity, we must pay them some money in advance.
We agreed and became the sole distributor accordingly.
Then, we pushed for priority vaccines. Serum was then committed to providing the Indian government and GAVI or COVAX Alliance with the first batch of the vaccines.
We argued since Bangladesh and India share a very close bond, we should also get vaccines on a priority basis.
They said, as a private company, Serum’s responses will not be impacted by dynamics of bilateral relations.
We continued insisting, nonetheless.
We were aiming to secure 50 million doses at a priority basis for the government, because only 100 million doses were up for grab.
We were concerned that if we missed the first lot, we will have wasted months. Due to our dogged persistence, Serum finally came up with a solution.
They said they could supply five million doses per month, and up to 30 million in six months in total.
However, the payment has to be made in advance. We said your vaccine was not even approved yet, and we have to pay in advance? They said if we wanted to get the vaccines on a priority basis, that was the only way. We had no other choice.
I then informed the Hon’ble Prime Minister that Serum agreed to give us 30 million doses but asked to be paid in advance. She agreed to the condition immediately.
That was what I referred to as her foresightedness and courage.
She said Bangladesh would provide the 50% of the advanced payment now and the rest will be paid once the vaccine gets approved.
Serum agreed to this condition.
Hon’ble prime minister also asked whether Bangladesh could get the vaccines at the same price as India.
I engaged Nazmul Hassan Papon, MD of our Pharma Division, to talk to Serum about her proposal.
The subsequent negotiation resulted in an agreement that the preliminary price of the vaccine would be $4 per dose.
However, the agreement contains, if Serum sells the vaccines to India at a lower rate than $4, Bangladesh will pay the lower rate.
Accordingly, we paid Serum $60 million in advance. And, that is why we are at a comfortable position now, whereas many countries struggling.
Recently, Reuters reported that Bangladesh will have to pay 47% more than India for vaccines while you have insisted that both countries will pay the same price. Do you stand by your position?
A: Of course. It was very unfortunate that Reuters failed to take our response for the report. Otherwise, there would not have been so much confusion.
The fact that Bangladesh and India will pay the same price for vaccines is stated very clearly in the agreement.
Serum is a multi-billion-dollar company and why would it violate its agreement with a government? The agreement stipulates that if India agrees to pay more than $4 per dose, Bangladesh will not the pay more.
However, if India pays less than $4 per dose, we will pay the lower rate.
Can there be any better agreement?
Now, according to media reports, India will pay Rs 200 or around $2.8 per dose.
It is rather a pleasant development for us because we will now pay $2.8 per dose instead of $4.
We now have the opportunity to take back our money or adjust it later. However, The Prime Minister has asked us, instead, to buy more vaccines with the surplus money. Therefore, instead of 30 million doses, we may get 40 million or more doses with the same amount of money.
A recent interview given by Serum’s Adar Poonawalla caused much confusion over the export of the vaccine from India.
In Bangladesh, detractors of the government seized on this. But Beximco and the government have been confident about the timely arrival of the vaccines. It seems you have been right all along.
A: That goes without saying. We always maintained that the vaccines will arrive by January 25, and it did arrive by January 25. Our civil society, opposition and talk-show guests ruled out the timely arrival of the vaccines. There were so many attempts to undermine us. But we were silent and only clarified that the vaccines will come timely and they just did.
Why has Bangladesh focused only on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine? Why not those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna or the Chinese/Russian vaccines?
A: The government has never said that there will only a single source for vaccines.
It said a few days ago that it would take Pfizer’s vaccines. But the issue with Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines is the cold storage.
We don’t have the infrastructure to distribute these vaccines across the entire country. Dhaka may have one or two appropriate cold storage, so these vaccines may be distributed in Dhaka only.
But we need a lot of vaccines. The number of vaccines we received from Serum is impossible for other companies to provide us with at this moment.
For example, Pakistan is a very close friend of China. Yet, China gave it only 500,000 vaccines.
The rest has to be purchased but it is uncertain when.
Brazil attempted to send an airplane to India to take vaccines but was not successful.
Thailand or Philippines paid Serum much higher than we did for vaccines but they still will have to wait until June.
Not a single company in the world other than Serum could give us five million doses at this stage.
As for the Chinese and Russian vaccines, we have some rules about medicine approval.
For a medicine to be imported or produced in the country, it must have previous approval either from US FDA, UK MHRA, EU or WHO.
AstraZeneca vaccine was first approved by the UK, and India and Bangladesh followed suit.
If it was only approved in India and not in the UK, we would not be able to import it from India, not even if it was free.
The Chinese or Russian vaccines are not approved by any of the abovementioned regulatory agencies.
Besides, not just Pfizer or Moderna’s, but Chinese and Russian vaccines are also costlier than AstraZeneca’s.
Some have asked why we are importing from India’s Serum Institute instead of AstraZeneca directly. How would you respond to that?
A: Producing medicine or vaccines under license is a global practice.
AstraZeneca will supply the vaccines only in the Europe and the UK markets. Serum, under license from AstraZeneca, will provide the Covax and developing countries with the vaccines.
Therefore, we could only buy from Serum.
Serum is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Currently, as much as 80% of vaccines Bangladesh takes—either via Unicef, WHO or GAVI—privately or publicly is supplied by Serum.
Serum cannot directly export to Bangladesh and relies on international partners such as Unicef or WHO because it does not have any agents or distributor in Bangladesh.
Is this why Beximco got involved as a distributor of Serum?
It is a mandatory global practice. If you want to export medicines to a country, you will have to have a physical office there or appoint a local agent or distributor.
Beximco, for example, exports medicines to 60 countries, and has a distributor in each of these countries.
Similarly, to export vaccines to Bangladesh, Serum needed to have a distributor. And, we happen to be the distributor.
But why is Beximco the distributor? Why not other companies?
A: I believe some people are raising this question with ill motives.
They know, too, that Beximco was not appointed by the government as Serum’s distributor.
Rather, Beximco approached Serum and invested its own money to become Serum’s distributor.
For example, you have become the distributor of a car company like Toyota or Hyundai.
Will the government have selected you as Toyota’s local distributor? Not at all. In this case, Beximco did rather the opposite.
We first secured the first or priority lot of vaccines and then approached the government.
We did not prevent other companies from approaching Serum. Why have not they done so? When we signed our deal with Serum or when Hon’ble Prime Minister agreed to make the advance payment, we all took a huge risk because no vaccines—let alone Serum’s—were approved anywhere in the world.
Hon’ble prime minister took the greater risk because she understood the importance of booking vaccines.
No other actors agreed to take this risk. We were bold enough to take the risk, and we, as a nation, are now benefitting from it.
Could this agreement have been a G2G deal between two governments?
A: How could it be a G2G deal? Vaccines are not like surplus staples in a government warehouses that it would sell to other governments.
This vaccine is being produced by Serum Institute, which is not a government-owned company.
So, how could you sign a G2G deal with a private company?
We are grateful to the Indian government and India’s Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi for donating us 2 million of doses. But these doses are not free either.
The Indian government had to buy them from Serum and then donate to neighbouring countries.
Some have objected to Beximco taking $1 per dose as commission…
A: Firstly, distributors are entitled to a certain commission, as happens everywhere.
This commission generally ranges from 10% to 20%. In the deal between Serum and the Bangladesh government, we were a party as a distributor. However, subsequently, the government gave us an additional responsibility.
We will now have to receive vaccines from Serum, take them to warehouses for storage, obtain clearance from the government’s drug testing lab for each batch of the vaccines, and then transport them to all 64 districts. Throughout the entire process, we must maintain a cold-chain. We will also have to show evidence that the cold chain was maintained at every stage of transportation—from India to the district level. This is not an easy task.
We may encounter accidents or break cold-chain accidentally at any given stage, but the entire liability rests with us.
We will have to provide new replacements for invalid doses of vaccines.
Normally, in these cases, there is an overedge given to the supplier that a certain percentage of invalidity may be tolerated. But in this case, we must provide 30 million valid doses, not a single dose less.
Therefore, the task entails huge risks and liabilities for us.
Secondly, Beximco was never involved in importing or supplying vaccines. Therefore, we now have to invest anew for building specified cold storage, warehouse or buy specialized vehicles. We are not even sure whether we will make any profit in the end at all.
We, therefore, repeatedly said if anyone else wants to take this responsibility, we will be happy to hand it over.
But have you seen any other company stepping up?
Beximco will also import some vaccines privately. There are questions about higher prices for these vaccines.
A: Serum is only required to provide COVAX or developing countries with vaccines at a reduced rate. For private sales, they will charge a higher rate. They agreed to sell vaccines to us at $8 per dose for private sales.
The government is buying 30 million doses. In addition, GAVI and COVAX alliance will provide several million additional doses.
By contrast, we will import only 1 million doses, which will not impact the government vaccination programme at all.
We have taken this decision mainly for the pharma industry.
During the pandemic, the pharma industry was not shut down, unlike most industries. But our employees are not recognized as frontline workers.
Therefore, to compensate their sacrifice, we have decided to bring some vaccines for them and their family members.
Therefore, the assumption that we will sell a lot of vaccines privately is not true.
As for pricing, there is a clear government guideline and rule to determine the Maximum Retail Price or MRP of medicines based on the import price. The same goes for vaccines. There is no scope for profiteering.
In fact, if we were really able to import a sizable lot of vaccines privately, it would help lessen the pressure on the government programme. Those who can afford may buy vaccines at own cost. Some may not want to wait for months.
Some may prefer private hospitals over government ones. Have those, who are demanding to stop private import vaccines, not gone to private hospitals for treatment ever in their life?