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Homeland Security

Pakistan's COVID-19 Positivity Rate Dips, But 'We Aren't Out of the Woods', Official Tells VOA

By Ayaz Gul May 31, 2021

Pakistan reported Monday that the national coronavirus positivity rate had remained well below 5% over the past week, with the country's top health official attributing the declining trend to "effective" government policies, including restrictions on public movement and effective screening of international travelers.

Officials recorded 43 deaths and detected more than 2,100 new cases in the last 24 hours, raising the national tally of deaths to nearly 21,000 and infections to more than 921,000 since the pandemic hit the South Asian nation early last year.

The national positivity ratio decreased to just over 4% from more than 11% a couple of weeks ago.

Last week, health authorities reported the detection of the first case of a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus which has caused record infections and deaths in neighboring India, threatening Pakistan's gains against the disease.

But Faisal Sultan, an infectious disease physician who is also special assistant to the prime minister on national health services, told VOA that an "effective" screening system for international travelers and other measures to deal with the health crisis have so far enabled the country to keep the situation under control in a country of about 220 million.

"I would say we are not out of the woods yet, but it seems at this point that I don't foresee an India-like situation," Sultan, who is directing all health-related interventions and measures against the pandemic, told VOA in a detailed interview at his office in Islamabad.

He noted that while his team has also detected a few cases of the variants prevalent in South African and Brazil, Pakistan is one of nearly 100 countries where a variant first detected in Britain, known as B117, is currently predominant.

"A large part of this wave that they [India] are going through, at least as best as I am aware, it was B117, and it was not necessarily the Indian variant that was doing it," he said.

Vaccination drive

The Pakistani government announced Monday that later this week it would begin scheduling vaccinations for citizens 18 years old and above. The free national drive has so far inoculated more than seven million people, with officials reporting the number of daily vaccinations growing to fewer than 400,000.

Sultan said more than 70% of about 900,000 health care workers across Pakistan have been vaccinated so far. He added that the government intends to vaccinate 70% of the 100 million eligible population by the end of this year.

"We really do think that to reach our targets, we need to go over the 500,000 a day mark, perhaps the 600,000 a day mark. So, I think that we really need to ramp up our vaccinations."

Sultan said government surveys have found that "at least two-thirds" of the Pakistani population is willing to get vaccinated.

"So, the vaccine centers will have to go close to their homes. It will have to be easy and accessible. It will have to be so easy that in the United States, even normal retail pharmacies were allowed to do the vaccination," he said.

Sultan said the government really needed "to get at least a quarter of its population" in dense urban areas vaccinated before Pakistan "can even talk about any relaxation" in coronavirus-related restrictions, including asking those inoculated against the disease to remove their masks.

Health care system

Prime Minister Imran Khan's government, which took office in August 2018, has from the outset focused on the country's underfunded and largely neglected national health care system.

The focus, Sultan noted, enabled the government to timely position itself to combat the pandemic, despite critical economic challenges facing Pakistan.

"We added over 7,000 oxygenated beds into the health care system across Pakistan. The second expansion that was done is even more important — a 66% increase in the medical oxygen capacity was done. Had we not done that, we would have faced a crisis. We came to about 90% capacity in the ongoing third wave," Sultan explained.

Pakistan initially received vaccine donations from close ally China to launch the national vaccination drive in early March before purchasing large quantities of vaccine doses to ensure supplies for the national campaign.

"They came out, gifted us the first lot, although we had told them we can pay for it. But they insisted. I think it speaks volumes about the level of trust and cooperation between China and Pakistan," Sultan said.

The Pakistani government is using the Chinese-made Sinovac, Sinopharm and CanSino vaccines. It has also received just over a million doses of AstraZeneca under a United Nations-backed program for poor nations, known as COVAX.

Pakistani officials say they are in conversations with several suppliers, and the government will have procured about 20 million additional vaccine doses by end of July.

"The only challenge is, in an environment where everybody wants the vaccine, to have a steady supply so that you don't run out of it. This is a challenge that will stay for the rest of the world," Sultan said, noting that Pakistan was in talks with several suppliers to secure enough doses to sustain domestic supplies.

Beijing has also trained Pakistani staff and established a facility at Islamabad's National Health Institute, where the one-dose CanSino vaccine is being filled from the concentrate provided by China. Sultan noted that the rare facility has the capacity to roll out about 3 million doses of CanSino a month to help boost the vaccination drive.

"It may be a small step for us that we have started filling the vaccine from concentrate. But it is a vital step toward actually manufacturing the vaccine in Pakistan, and I think it may take a few months," he said.

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