President Gotabaya Rajapaksa meeting Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar.
A national plan to roll out COVID-19 vaccination in Sri Lanka has been drawn up and hopes are high that the first batch of high-risk groups will receive their dose of immunization next month.
As there is an upsurge of COVID-19 infections claiming a few lives daily, the vaccination has become a beacon of hope that the country will be able to tie up the unseen monster to hold it at bay.
After a year since the novel Coronavirus outbreak, several safe and effective vaccines have been authorised around the globe following extensive research, and some more remain in development. These endeavours are a sign of relief for the panic-stricken world that the acute phase of this pandemic will come to an end soon.
As the production and development of vaccines for COVID-19 are being accelerated, a global initiative named ‘COVAX’ has been worked out to ensure that the vaccines eventually reach every country in an equitable and timely manner. It brings together Governments and manufacturers in an effort to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to COVID-19 vaccines once they are available, regardless of their wealth.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently confirmed that Sri Lanka is qualified to receive COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX, and the Government has already applied for the facility. Under this facility, Sri Lanka is expected to receive enough doses to vaccinate up to 20 percent of the population.
|Security Forces are a priority group under the national vaccine programme|
In addition, Sri Lanka has progressed well in its bilateral discussions with India, Russia and China, all of which manufacture vaccines of their own, over securing more doses of COVID-19 vaccines and the Treasury has arranged financial provisions in this regard. The Finance Ministry is in talks with international monetary and donor agencies, including the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Word Bank, to secure required funds for the purpose.
Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID-19Disease Control State Minister Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle told Parliament on Friday that the Government is keenly looking at obtaining the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine through India, where it is manufactured under licence by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker.
Speaking during an adjournment debate on the current situation in the country, she also said that the Government was hopeful of receiving the mRNA-based Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which has an over 90 percent efficacy rate, through the COVAX facility. She assured the House that the vaccination process would begin by mid-February.
Moving the Adjournment Motion, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Gayantha Karunathilaka questioned as to when the people would be able to receive the jab and what the Government preparations in that regard were. Complaining that Sri Lanka was behind other regional countries in receiving the COVID-19 vaccines, he urged the Government to make it a top priority in its agenda.
A press statement issued following the bilateral talks between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar last week said the latter agreed to give priority to Sri Lanka when supplying its COVID-19 vaccine to other countries. This followed a request by President Rajapaksa to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine, which is being produced by India.
According to the Indian media, two vaccines ‘Covishield’, the Indian variant of the ‘Oxford/AstraZeneca’ vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and the indigenously developed ‘Covaxin’ of Bharat Biotech, were granted accelerated regulatory approval by India’s top drugs regulator, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, on January 3 for restricted use against COVID-19. As a result, a massive inoculation drive is to begin on January 16 in India, which had recorded over 10.5 million infections with over 150,000 fatalities as at the beginning of this week.
In the meantime, Russian Ambassador Yury Materiy recently assured that the ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine manufactured by the renowned Gamaleya Research Institute in Moscow would be sent to Sri Lanka in the near future to help counter the Coronavirus pandemic. The Ambassador, when he called on Public Security Minister Rear Admiral (Retired) Sarath Weerasekara last month, said the preliminary work for the distribution of the vaccine under close coordination of the two Ministries of Health had been finalized.
|Sri Lankan Ambassador to China Dr. Palitha Kohona meeting a Chinese delegation to discuss obtaining the ‘Sinovac’ vaccine|
This vaccine also has an over 90 percent efficacy rate according to international reports.
In addition, Sri Lanka is hopeful of obtaining the ‘Sinovac’ vaccine manufactured in China. This is one of the two vaccines manufactured in China, the other being ‘Sinopharm’. According to reports, the Government last month sought a report from the Sri Lankan Embassy in China on the success of the two COVID-19 vaccines developed there. Sri Lankan Ambassador to China Dr. Palitha Kohona met a delegation from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and members of the Ministry of Commerce of China to discuss the process of obtaining the vaccine.
The COVID-19 Vaccine Committee headed by Senior Adviser to the President Lalith Weeratunga has been working on the above arrangements to secure enough shots of COVID-19 vaccines as early as possible while also drawing plans of their local distribution as some vaccines may require cold chain storage and transport.
He told the media that the national plan in this regard would be announced this week, and that priority would be given to frontline health workers, whose number is about 155,000, when rolling out the inoculation programme consisting of five phases. He said about 127,000 Tri-Forces and Police/STF personnel working on the frontlines in COVID-19 related operations would receive the vaccine next.
Elderly people (over 60 years) are to be given the jab under the third phase. The vulnerable communities with complications and workers who are in frequent contact with migrant workers, will also receive it once the process begins. The vaccination programme will be extended to the country’s middle-aged workforce that directly impacts the economy under the final phase. None of the vaccines are yet recommended for children under 16 and pregnant women, so those two categories will be left out for the moment.
Dr. Fernandopulle told the media on Monday that President Rajapaksa has instructed to provide the vaccine free of charge to the prioritized target groups. She said the Government was working on improving the cold storage requirements and other infrastructure and logistical facilities for the huge vaccination drive. This is complicated by the fact that most, if not all, vaccines require two doses for full immunity to be gained.
As mass-vaccination programmes roll out in the world, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan, however, reminded that preventative measures like physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing continue to be necessary for at least the rest of the year as developing herd immunity to COVID-19 would take time. The international media reported on Monday that the WHO top scientist called on people to be “a little patient,” and not to let their guard down in the next few months.
Coronavirus enters Parliament
|Russian Ambassador Yury Materiy meeting Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi in August|
Meanwhile, Parliament has also felt the Coronavirus heat as at least three of its Members, namely Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader and Opposition MP Rauff Hakeem and State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara, were found to have contracted the virus.
State Minister Jayasekara had not attended Parliament sittings last week, but MP Hakeem had attended sittings on Tuesday (5) and Minister Nanayakkara, who has a good attendance record, had attended all four sittings days. Nanayakkara was identified as a first contact of MP Hakeem. Moreover, the Prime Minister’s Political Affairs Coordinating Secretary Kumarasiri Hettige, who had visited Parliament on Friday, has also contracted COVID-19.
After perusing CCTV footage, Parliament authorities have requested 31 Parliamentarians, including Ministers, who had had direct contacts with the above MPs, to self-quarantine and this number is likely to rise. That means none of them will be able to attend Parliament when it meets next week. The Parliament staff workers who had had close contacts with the infected MPs and the official, security and personal staff members of the infected MPs have also been asked to self-quarantine.
The Parliament complex had been disinfected and PCR tests are to be conducted this week at the Parliament premises for the relevant staff members. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has notified that the MPs could also get their PCR tests done on those days. A Party Leaders’ Meeting presided by the Speaker is to be held today to decide on the future course of action with regard to the sittings.
As Parliament was adjourned on January 19 at the end of the last Parliament session, the Speaker said Parliament would have to meet on that day and schedule future business of Parliament as per decisions taken at the Party Leaders’ Meeting.
The number of COVID-19 cases in the country has shot up to cross the 49,000 mark with about 240 fatalities as at yesterday. In line with the now repeatedly reminded slogan, “with COVID-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe,” all health precautions need to be taken seriously as the country strives to resume normal operations amidst trying circumstances.