Taliban backs Afghan vaccine drive after COVAX pledges $112 million

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents on Tuesday gave their backing to a vaccination programme to which the World Health Organization’s COVAX programme has pledged $112 million.

Announcing the funding, an Afghan health official said the programme would cover the 20% of the population.

The COVAX programme is a global scheme to vaccinate people in poor and middle income countries against the coronavirus. It aims to deliver at least 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021 to cover 20% of the most vulnerable people in 91 poor and middle-income countries.

Afghanistan’s Deputy Health Minister Waheed Majroh told journalists it was going to take six months to get the vaccines but authorities were in discussions to get them earlier.

Afghanistan has registered 54,854 infections and 2,390 deaths – but experts say the actual numbers are much higher and are underreported due to low testing and limited access to medical facilities in the war-torn country.

Any vaccination programme will take place amidst continuing fighting between Taliban and government forces and rising attacks on media and rights campaigners, but officials believe the insurgent group would not oppose the campaign because it would not go door-to-door.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters on Tuesday that the group would “support and facilitate” the vaccination drive conducted via health centres.

Aside from COVAX, the country has also received a pledge of 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India, Dr Ghulam Dastagir Nazari, head of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation at Afghanistan’s health ministry, told Reuters.

“The AstraZeneca brand which is manufactured in India will arrive soon in Afghanistan,” Nazari said, adding that the government was only concerned about the WHO approval of the vaccine and that the pre-qualification process has already started.

India’s foreign office did not immediately reply to Reuters’ request for comment.

The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have also said they would finance vaccines for another 20% of Afghanistan by end 2022, deputy spokesperson of the health ministry Masouma Jafari told Reuters.

Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Additional reporting by Orooj Hakimi; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Louise Heavens and Giles Elgood

Taliban backs Afghan vaccine drive after COVAX pledges $112 million