Exclusive: Outcry Over Pakistan’s Unprecedented Plan To Sell COVID Vaccines On Private Market – Now On Hold Over Price Dispute 
Pakistani health workers getting vaccinated with donated Chinese Sinopharm vaccines.

ISLAMABAD – (EXCLUSIVE) A controversial plan to sell Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine to wealthy citizens in Pakistan has been put on hold following a dispute between the government and the private pharmaceutical company involved over the vaccines’ sale price, Health Policy Watch has learned.

Meanwhile, Transparency International – Pakistan appealed to Prime Minister Imran Khan to “cancel” the private importation of COVID-19 vaccines altogether, citing concerns with price and the potential for corruption.

“Pakistan is one of the first countries to allow the private sector to import and sell COVID-19 vaccines and [this] will provide a window of corruption, as there are possibilities some of the government vaccines may be sold to …private hospital[s],” Transparency International stated in a letter to the Prime Minister’s office, also obtained by Health Policy Watch.

Public health experts have also expressed disquiet about how a two-tier system would deepen inequality, allowing wealthy citizens who can pay to move to the front of the vaccination queue. 

The arrangement would also enable private buyers to obtain a vaccine [Sputnik V] whose clinical trial results have significantly outperformed the donated Chinese Sinopharm vaccines that are currently being rolled out by Pakistan’s public health authorities to health workers and other priority groups.

And the vaccine deals set a precedent for other low- and middle-income countries. Along with Pakistan, Brazil, Indonesia, and the Philippines, as well as Thailand and the United Arab Emirates are also reportedly weighing, or in the process of creating, a private market vaccine channel.

Government Initially Gave Sputnik Sales Go-ahead

In early February, Pakistan health authorities granted emergency use authorization for Russia’s Gam-COVID-Vac (Sputnik V) vaccine and gave permission to Ali Gohar Pharmaceutical (AGP), a private pharmaceutical company, to import and sell the vaccine.

Last week, AGP brought the first shipment of 50,000 Sputnik V doses into Karachi – but disagreement over price has put the private vaccination rollout on hold.

Initially, the government had approved private importation without fixing a price. But it later classified COVID-19 vaccines in the “hardship” category of medicines, which enables the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP) to set a maximum price.

The government then fixed the sale price at around $55 for two doses. But AGP says this is too cheap, while Transparency International believes is too high.

According to Transparency’s letter to Prime Minister Khan, “the federal cabinet has fixed the maximum retail price of Sputnik-V Russian vaccine at PKR8449 (US$54.46) for two doses and China’s Conividecia at PKR4225 ($27.30) per injection”.

However, said Transparency, the global price set for the Sputnik-V is $10 per dose.

“This means that, internationally, the two doses of Sputnik V are available at $20. However, the approved price for its commercial sale in Pakistan is 160% higher than the international price,” said the letter.

The price cap came from the Ministry of National Health Services Regulations and Coordination (NHSRC). Confirming this, NHSRC secretary Aamir Ashraf Khawaja also defended the government’s decision of allowing the private sector to import COVID-19 vaccine.

Russian military personnel receive Sputnik V vaccine

In a letter written to Transparency, Khawaja said that Pakistan remains committed to fighting COVID-19 with “everything available” at its disposal, including private vaccinations.

“This is expected in a large country like Pakistan, with a population over 220 million. The government, therefore, as a deliberate policy tool, allowed private sector to import vaccines to cater to those segments of the society which were not on the immediate priority list of the government,” said Khawaja in his letter.

“Government is fixing the maximum retail price, leaving room for competition and free market dynamics. It may also be added that COVID-19 vaccine market dynamics entail the sale in large quantities, typically in millions, and it is not easy for small players to access small number of doses,” said the letter.

Company Has Reservations About Price Cap

When asked for its response to DRAP’s decision to cape the price on privately imported vaccines, the AGP official said that “obviously company has reserved some appropriate steps about it”. 

Sources close to the company said that it had been planning to sell the double-dose vaccine for at least $70 and it may not sell its current stock at all now.

Meanwhile, DRAP spokesperson Akhtar Abbas said that medicine prices are fixed by the federal government and DRAP can only recommend prices on technical grounds.

He said that the reconsideration of the Sputnik-V vaccine set price was possible only on the advice of the federal Cabinet and, as far as he knew, Cabinet had not passed any directions to the regulatory authority.

Abbas added that if the company had any reservations about the pricing of the vaccine, it must submit these to the pricing committee of the DRAP.

Ellen ‘t Hoen, from South Centre, said that although the World Health Organization (WHO) had not finished assessing Sputnik’s efficacy and safety, the vaccine has been approved for emergency use by certain countries.

She added that it was “only a matter of time” before COVID-19 vaccines became “big business”. She also said that now India is planning to impose export controls on vaccines, more countries will start to look at China and Russia for supply.

Pakistan has given Emergency Use Approvals to a number of vaccines, including the Pfizer, AstraZenca, SinoPharm and Conividecia vaccines, as well as Sputnik-V.  However, so far only the Chinese-donated SinoPharm is being administered to healthcare workers and people above age 60.

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said its members were not focusing on selling vaccines to private companies.

 “The major international vaccine makers, who are members of our federation, fully appreciate the public health emergency and therefore are focusing all their efforts on meeting the requests of governments or their appointed health authorities; as well a COVAX,” said IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni.

The manufacturer of Sputnik V has submitted dossiers to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Medicines Agency for approval.  In February, a peer reviewed study of Sputnik’s clinical trial reults in The Lancet  found it to be safe and effective.

Asked to comment on the reports of the private market vaccine arrangements being laid in Pakistan and other countries, neither WHO’s Pakistan country office, nor WHO’s global headquarters in Geneva, had replied as of press time.

Image Credits: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.

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