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Private firms allowed to import COVID vaccines, exempt from price caps

Pakistan administered a record 525,000 people in a single day.

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will allow private companies to import coronavirus vaccines and has agreed to exempt such imports from price caps even as the nation scrambles to secure supplies.

According to documents reviewed by Reuters news agency, the National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination division of the health ministry had sought a special cabinet exemption to allow for such imports, while excluding the imported vaccines from the strict price cap regime that is typically applied to all drug sales within the country.

The documents show the cabinet of Prime Minister Imran Khan has approved the proposal, which also sought suspension of some related regulations for six months to let the private sector determine the maximum price caps.

Health Minister Faisal Sultan confirmed the cabinet decision saying it was an “approval of the principle that private sector can import” and drive the pricing due to “the non-availability of a reference price”.

The decision is significant as Pakistan has yet to secure substantive volumes of vaccines from any company. It had launched a vaccination drive with 500,000 doses of Sinopharm’s vaccine donated by China and frontline health workers are being given the shots on priority.

Sultan said that Pakistan still planned to inoculate its population for free and only a “small minority” who wished to pay for the shots would have that option in the open market.

“Only those who wish to get it via private sector will pay anything,” he said. “Personally, my assessment is that when the vaccines are available and we have market competition that will automatically set the prices”

Pakistan is still largely reliant on the GAVI/WHO COVAX vaccine initiative that is aiming to provide shots to poorer nations. They country has yet to receive any of the 17 million doses it is expected to get through the COVAX initiative.

Sultan said last month the country could receive “in the range of tens of millions” of a CanSino Biologics vaccine under an agreement with the Chinese firm. The government’s decision to allow commercial imports and no price caps revolves around a rationale of not being able to find any reference price.

According to government records, only 27,228 healthcare workers have so far been vaccinated. Sinopharm, AstraZeneca and Sputnik V are the only three candidates to be approved for emergency use in Pakistan.