Health

Pakistan to Get 500,000 Doses of Updated Pfizer Vaccine in January 2024

Pakistan is set to receive 500,000 doses of the new Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (2023-24 formula) next month, as the country faces the threat of the JN.1 variant, a new sub-variant of the Omicron strain that is spreading rapidly around the world.

The new vaccine, which has been authorised for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is designed to target the spike protein of the JN.1 variant, which has more than 30 mutations that make it different from the previous dominant strain, XBB.1.5.

The new vaccine will be used to immunise high-risk groups, especially those who plan to perform the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia later this year. Saudi authorities are expected to require vaccination with the new Pfizer vaccine or other mRNA vaccines approved by the FDA before allowing pilgrims to enter their territory.

According to an official of the National Institute of Health (NIH), Islamabad, Pakistan will get 200,000 doses of the new vaccine from the US and 300,000 doses from COVAX, an international initiative to provide Covid vaccines to people around the world.

“We are going to get 200,000 doses of Pfizer’s new COVID-19 vaccine (2023-24 formula) from the US in the next few days. This new formula is effective against the currently circulating variants including Omicron and its sub-variants. In addition, we would get 300,000 more doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine from COVAX,” the NIH official said.

However, before administering the new vaccine to the public, Pakistan will have to obtain a fresh Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) from the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (Drap), as the new vaccine has not been approved or licensed by the FDA, but only authorised for emergency use.

Another health official said that Drap would accept the FDA’s EUA and would only require a formal request from the NIH or the Federal Directorate of Immunisation (FDI) or the local representative or authorised supplier of Pfizer.

The new vaccine is indicated as a single dose for most individuals aged five years and older. Children under the age of five may be eligible to receive additional doses of the new vaccine if they have not already completed a three-dose series with previous formulations of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The arrival of the new vaccine comes at a time when the World is witnessing a surge in COVID-19 cases, driven by the Omicron variant and its sub-variants. In December, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that the number of new COVID-19 cases increased by 52% during the 28-day period from November 20 to December 17, 2023 as compared to the previous 28-day period, with over 850,000 new cases reported during that time.

Last month the WHO also declared JN.1 as a Variant of Interest (VOI), due to its “rapidly increasing spread” globally. JN.1 is now the fastest-growing variant in the US, accounting for nearly half of the cases there, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In Pakistan, the officials in the NIH Islamabad and provincial health facilities in Lahore and Karachi said they had not yet detected JN.1 as COVID-19 positivity was quite low and less than 1%, but added that they needed the new vaccine to prevent pilgrims from contracting the new variants.

The new vaccine is expected to offer improved protection against symptomatic and severe disease caused by JN.1 and other Omicron-related sub-variants, according to pre-clinical data from Pfizer and BioNTech. The updated COVID-19 vaccines are also expected to increase the effectiveness of COVID-19 tests and treatments, which may have been reduced by the mutations in the JN.1 variant.

According to an official from the NIH, Pakistan currently has no COVID-19 vaccines in stock. All previously available vaccines, including those from Pfizer, Sinopharm, and Sinovac, were either used up or reached their expiration date by November 2023.

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