Pakistan vaccine
An elderly resident receives the first dose of the coronavirus disease vaccine, as the government started vaccination for the general public, starting with elderly people, at a vaccination centre in Karachi, Pakistan March 10, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Islamabad: Pakistan said on Thursday that it would allow COVID-19 vaccine doses to be sold commercially to patients, starting with the vaccine developed in China by CanSino Biologics. The Russian Sputnik V vaccine will also be sold, officials said.

The policy will allow affluent Pakistanis to pay to get the shots at large private hospitals whenever they want, while most people wait their turn for a state-supplied vaccination.

“The government will provide free vaccine to 98 per cent of the people,” Fawad Chaudhry, federal minister for science and technology, said Thursday after a meeting of the federal Cabinet in Islamabad. “But 2 per cent of the people who don’t want to wait in a line, we have decided to allow the sale of private vaccine.”

The CanSino Biologics vaccine, which is administered in a single shot, will be sold for around $28 a dose, Chaudhry said.

The pricing for Sputnik V, a two-shot vaccine, is under dispute between the private company that plans to import it and the national drug regulator. Chaudhry said the company, Ali Gohar Pharmaceutical, wanted a free hand in pricing but the government could not allow that. The company has taken the matter to court in the southern province of Sindh.

On Thursday, Nadeem Akhtar, a judge of the Sindh high court, said in an interim order that “any restriction relating to the sale of the COVID-19 vaccine at this stage would be against the public interest because of the undisputed urgent need due to the crisis currently being faced by the country.” The next hearing of the case is scheduled for April 12.

Pakistan, with a population of more than 220 million, has reported more than 623,000 coronavirus cases and more than 14,000 deaths, according to a New York Times database.

President Arif Alvi; his wife, Samina Alvi; and Pervez Khattak, the defence minister, all tested positive for the virus last week. Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi, tested positive in March; Khan has recovered and resumed his official duties.

The country’s public vaccination program is off to a slow start, in part because the government has not been able to secure large supplies. Officials have said they expect 3 million doses of the CanSino vaccine to be delivered in the next few weeks.

The government is giving doses of another Chinese vaccine, developed by Sinopharm, to people age 60 or older, and began registering people 50 or older for vaccination this week. But according to a major Pakistani news outlet, only about 560,000 people have been inoculated so far, out of the 17 million who are eligible.

Critics have assailed the slow pace of the free vaccination programme, and many opposition politicians and health officials have questioned the government’s decision to allow private sale of the vaccine, raising concerns about affordability and potential corruption.

“The governments all over the world are subsidising the vaccine for their citizens,” said Faisal Karim Kundi, a spokesperson for the opposition Pakistan People’s party. “The majority of the population is poor in the country. How will the poor afford private vaccination?”