A Pakistani lab will soon receive Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine for commercial sale, making Pakistan one of the first countries to market shots privately as it scrambles to secure supplies.
Despite concerns over fairness and higher prices, Islamabad agreed this week to allow the commercial import and sale of vaccines without price caps, in contrast to most countries, which are importing and administering vaccines through government channels.
"We are told the first shipment is expected within the next week," Chughtai Lab director Omar Chughtai told Reuters, adding it would be receiving several thousand doses.
Pakistan's decision to allow private sales of vaccine without a price cap in a lower-income country of 220 million people has faced criticism.
Former health minister Zafar Mirza, while praising government efforts to procure and distribute free vaccines, said that avoiding a price cap for private sales "will deepen inequality in society at a time when there is a need to have widespread coverage".
The government launched a vaccination drive this month with 500,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by longtime ally China. But aside from the donated Chinese doses, Islamabad has not completed any deals to buy vaccines.
Sputnik V is one of four vaccines approved for emergency use in Pakistan, in addition to those by China's Sinopharm and CanSinoBio, and the AstraZeneca-Oxford University shot.
Chughtai Lab aims to import the others as well, but Sputnik V was the first to become available, Chughtai said.
Health Minister Faisal Sultan told Reuters in a message he was "not directly aware" of the deal.
Chughtai declined to specify import costs or prices but said the price would "appear inflated" compared with what has been reported for Sputnik V globally, given the smaller volume it was planning to sell relative to global procurement.
Sputnik V's developers have said the two-dose vaccine would be sold at $10 per dose.
"Internationally there is very high demand, and I would not be surprised if the price points are higher today," Chughtai said, adding that prices will come down over the next three to four months as more vaccines become available.
"The biggest challenge around the vaccines globally right now is allocation to specific countries," he said.
Chughtai said his Lahore-based pathology lab had turned down "grey market" offers from people in various countries who had "extra vaccine" not officially meant for re-export.
The lab is importing Sputnik V through Pakistani firm Ali Gohar Pharmaceuticals Pvt and the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is responsible for marketing the vaccine abroad.
In a filing with the Pakistan Stock Exchange on February 15, Ali Gohar Pharmaceuticals Pvt said it was the exclusive distributor of the Sputnik V vaccine in the country, but "has not entered into a supply agreement with any hospital or diagnostic centre" either "directly or indirectly".
The statement added that the firm would only make such an agreement "after completion of all necessary legal formalities and which duly conforms and fully complies with the directions issued by the relevant regulatory authorities".
Chughtai said he expected an official government decree in the next two days specifying rules on inoculations by the private sector, including on registration of recipients. The company expects to receive shipments every four to five days.