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Pakistan Government Criticized Over Private Imports Of COVID-19 Vaccines

A woman receives a shot of the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine from a health worker at a vaccination center in Karachi earlier this month.
A woman receives a shot of the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine from a health worker at a vaccination center in Karachi earlier this month.

Pakistan’s decision to allow private imports of COVID-19 vaccines for sale on the open market has triggered concerns that the move could cause inequality and open the door to corruption.

The country has already received Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccines for commercial sale, with local reports saying the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP) has fixed the prices for the two injections at about 8,449 rupees (roughly $55) -- a sum that many in Pakistan may be unable to afford.

However, officials say that the prices mentioned in the media are not final, and they have defended the government’s decision to allow such sales as an effort to give Pakistanis more choice while the country grapples with a sharp rise in coronavirus infections.

The country of 220 million people is currently vaccinating frontline healthcare workers and citizens over the age of 60 free of charge using over 1 million Sinopharm doses donated by China.

Pakistan Prioritizes People Over 60 In Second COVID-19 Vaccination Phase
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"What’s going on? Sputnik will cost $10 in India and $50-$100 in Pakistan," journalist Najam Sethi tweeted on March 23.

"Why isn’t the Government of Pakistan importing and distributing it free?," Sethi wrote, echoing similar comments posted on social media platforms.

In a letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Transparency International Pakistan noted that in countries across the world governments "are procuring the vaccines and administering them to the citizens for free, and it is the state’s responsibility."

'Window Of Corruption'

According to the anti-corruption watchdog, allowing for vaccines to be sold on the open market will open "a window of corruption" as the temptation will grow to sell government-procured vaccines to private hospitals at a sizable profit.

DRAP official Akhtar Abbas told RFE/RL on March 23 that several private companies have been allowed to import the Russian vaccine and others produced by China's Sinopharm, CanSinoBIO, and AstraZeneca.

Sajid Hussain, an official of the federal Health Ministry, said that the cabinet had yet to approve the prices.

"No formal decision has been taken in this regard. It requires a comprehensive mechanism and it will need time," Hussain said.

Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry defended the government's move to allow the private import of vaccines, saying it would enable people to "avoid waiting in long lines."

"I don’t understand all the criticism," he tweeted.

Pakistani authorities have recorded more than 633,700 coronavirus cases and nearly 14,000 deaths, with 3,270 infections and 72 deaths reported in the past 24 hours.

Khan and his wife tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this week and are now recovering under home isolation.