Sri Lanka’s struggle for AstraZeneca after diplomatic hiccups

Thursday, 24 June 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

When the island nation started the vaccination programme with the Indian-granted 500,000 vaccines, some leaders in the country’s ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) came up with statements that made the public believe the whole country would be vaccinated by the end of this year. Until the second wave of the pandemic, even the people never thought they would need vaccines because the first wave was controlled effectively. But Sri Lankans gradually realised the importance of the vaccines only after the numbers spiked in the second wave. Now they are desperate for the jab given the higher daily death toll – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


  • Country needs around 600,000 AstraZeneca for second doses 
  • Government earlier said was ordering 13.5 m AstraZeneca
  • Has urged Japan, West for AstraZeneca, but no response yet 
  • Government over-relied on India for vaccines 
  • SL’s vaccine request comes after diplomatic hiccups with India, Japan, US

A delay in purchasing 600,000 AstraZeneca or Covishield vaccines for the second dose cannot come at a worse time for the Government than this, when its popularity is at its rock-bottom level. The Government has been struggling to manage bad publicity on every issue, but every week there is a new one. 

The bad publicity includes a fire on the MV X-Press Pearl and its sinking, marine pollution and deprival of fishing due to the ship fire; Minister Sarath Weerasekera, a strong ally of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, being dragged into actress Piyumi Hansamali’s quarantine process; shocking fuel price hike; a long lockdown amid spikes in daily death toll and COVID-19 cases; and the luxury four-wheel drive duty-free vehicles for parliamentarians. 

Sri Lanka is desperate for the AstraZeneca vaccine. Though ministers in the Government say that there will not be any issue in getting AstraZeneca, people do not seem to have any trust in them. Meanwhile, people in 54 vehicles had travelled from Colombo to Galle early this month to get the second dose of AstraZeneca, even paying between Rs. 10,000 to 20,000, a Police investigation has revealed. 

When the island nation started the vaccination programme with the Indian-granted 500,000 vaccines, some leaders in the country’s ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) came up with statements that made the public believe the whole country would be vaccinated by the end of this year. 

Opposition parties have already blamed the Government, charging that it had not placed the order to purchase the vaccines on time while some of the SLPP ministers were busy promoting the clinically unproven local ‘paniya’. Until the second wave of the pandemic, even the people never thought they would need vaccines because the first wave was controlled effectively.  

But Sri Lankans gradually realised the importance of the vaccines only after the numbers spiked in the second wave. Now they are desperate for the jab given the higher daily death toll. 

“Only AstraZeneca”

Sri Lanka first got a 500,000 AstraZeneca grant from India on 28 January and then purchased another 500,000 from India on 28 Feburary, while the island nation got another grant of 264,000 COVAX from the World Health Organization (WHO) on 7 March. 

As of 19 June, over 925,000 people had got the first AstraZeneca jab, but now the concern is the nearly 476,000 people who got the vaccine in March. Most of them are desperate because of an earlier WHO report which said the second dose should be taken within 12 weeks from the first jab. The local health authorities have requested the people who got their first jab to get their second dose after 11 weeks, records seen from the public showed. 

It all began with some false optimistic statements which the Government could not turn into reality. Lalith Weeratunga, a former senior Government official and the Chief of the Presidential Task Force on the Procurement of COVID-19 Vaccine, on 27 January said Sri Lanka was going place an order to purchase up to three million AstraZeneca doses from the Serum Institute of India. Local media first reported that the second dose needed to be administered after a gap of four weeks. 

Nearly four weeks after Weeratunga’s comments, Ramesh Pathirana, Minister of Plantations and a Government spokesman, said Sri Lanka had ordered 13.5 million Oxford AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines in addition to the 500,000 doses gifted by India, and the country may not use Chinese vaccines in the second phase of immunisation. 

Pathirana, at a press conference five days before Sri Lanka purchased 500,000 AstraZeneca from India, also said Sri Lanka was likely to go only with the AstraZeneca vaccines for the second phase of vaccination as the Chinese and Russian vaccines were not ready yet. 

Diplomatic hiccup 

Three days after the Indian grant of 500,000 AstraZeneca, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa unilaterally cancelled a tripartite agreement with India and Japan to develop its East Container Terminal (ECT) at Colombo Port, citing protests by port-related trade unions. 

The surprise cancellation came a day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the public in Kalutara that an international treaty like the ECT deal could not be cancelled easily. It was a shocking move as far as India was concerned after Sri Lankan leaders committed to the ECT development when the Indian Foreign Minister visited Colombo a few days earlier.

Rajapaksa’s decision to cancel the ECT deal came at a time India had raised concerns over China’s increasing role in Colombo Port through which India accounts for the majority of transhipment business. The previous Government made a commitment to India on the ECT based on a strategic decision given the higher Indian volume in transhipment business at Colombo Port. 

Then Ports Minister Arjuna Ranatunga once said the bid for the ECT had been drafted with a condition that bidders had to include an Indian partner. The bid document showed it was drafted in such a way that no company could bid without partnering with India. Even if China wanted to bid, it needed to have a consortium that included an Indian firm for at least a 20% stake. Government officials say the move prompted China to complain about the deal.

Even after cancelling the ECT deal, India did not deny Sri Lanka’s request for AstraZeneca. The Sri Lankan Government was completely relying on India for its vaccine need in February even after its unilateral move. Serum Institute of India sold 500,000 vaccines which were brought to Sri Lanka on 28 February and the Government leaders’ statements gave confidence to the public on receiving their first jab of AstraZeneca. 

Then the Government on 7 March received the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX facility, a grant from WHO, which after the arrival of 264,000 vaccines, said: “This delivery of 264,000 doses is part of the first wave of arrivals that will continue in the coming weeks and months; culminating in 1,440,000 doses arriving through May.”

Pfizer instead of AstraZeneca?

Now we are in the month of June and not a single COVAX vaccine has arrived in Sri Lanka after the first batch. However, a weekly English newspaper has reported that the country will receive another 264,000 AstraZeneca and that Pfizer vaccines are likely to be administered as second doses if more AstraZeneca stocks fail to arrive, as recommended by WHO. Korea has already done it.   

Some people deliberately avoided AstraZeneca because of possible side effect concerns. Apart from that some people also had concerns over what would happen if India suddenly denied the next batch of vaccines. 

It was towards end March that the Sri Lankan Government slowly realised the difficulty in securing the purchase of AstraZeneca, especially after Serum Institute of India stopped AstraZeneca exports as COVID-19 cases started to surge after a fire damaged one of its buildings, which took place on 21 January.

India granted 500,000 AstraZeneca on 28 January, a week after the fire incident. Even more than after one month, India sent the second batch of 500,000, but this time for money. There is no evidence to suggest that India denied the second doses for Sri Lanka. But Sri Lanka could have got the second dose had it planned well instead of relying entirely on India and if it had a balanced foreign policy.

On 22 April, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi told Parliament that several cases of blood clots had been reported in various countries after receiving AstraZeneca and six such cases had been reported in Sri Lanka while three of the people had died. 

Bragging and begging

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in public announced that the vaccine was the remedy for the pandemic. His Government ministers boasted about how the country would administer the vaccine and how the Government had planned to buy 32 million vaccines. But they could not make their rhetoric a reality.  

Just last Friday a group of eight senior medical specialists who are part of an independent expert panel of the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) in a letter to the Health Ministry said there were major flaws in the vaccination programme and many deaths could have been prevented. 

While boasting about its vaccination programme, the Government also started to call several Western nations including the US and some EU countries to see if Sri Lanka could secure some AstraZeneca to complete the second doses. 

On 7 May the President’s Media Division (PMD) in a statement said Sri Lanka was facing a shortage of 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to complete the second dose. “The President said he hoped that the WHO would assist in meeting that need,” the PMD said in a statement.

On 19 May, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena discussed with the ambassadors of EU countries on contribution towards the COVAX facility supporting global efforts to secure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines by countries, including Sri Lanka, in the context of the national action plan to inoculate its adult population against the virus. 

It was not only India’s project that was cancelled under this Government. It also cancelled a $ 480 million Millennium Challenge Corporation grant from the United States targeted mainly at road infrastructure. The ruling SLPP in its election campaigns said the US was trying to take over the valuable lands of poor farmers through this move. The Government also cancelled the Japanese-financed LRT project while Japan was also a partner in the cancelled ECT deal. 

Despite all those past hiccups, the Sri Lankan Government asked Washington and Tokyo for their help to secure the second dose of AstraZeneca.

Not in the list 

On 9 June, the President’s Media Division said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s request made to the Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga, seeking to obtain 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, had been met with positive responses. However, the Japanese Embassy in Colombo maintained a silence on this request. 

Japan later announced a list of countries to which it would send the AstraZeneca vaccine, but Sri Lanka was not among them. Also, although the United States has said it will send vaccines to Sri Lanka, no one is still very sure if these will be the AstraZeneca product. 

The very next day, on 10 June, the President’s Media Division said President Rajapaksa had instructed the officials to order a batch of vaccines for a third dose, taking the ongoing global situation into account and based on the recommendations by the medical experts. 

This could be a farsighted strategy for the country. However, it comes when more than 90% of Sri Lanka’s population is yet to receive their first dose. 

The statements made by the SLPP leaders in Parliament and outside early this month also showed the Government’s desperate need for the AstraZeneca second doses. 

State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals Professor Channa Jayasumana speaking in Parliament said Sri Lanka was expecting a stock of AstraZeneca vaccines through the COVAX facility in July and the request had been made to the United States. 

He also said Sri Lanka was also negotiating with a number of others to obtain AstraZeneca vaccines to be used as the second dose, but it would not look to purchase vaccines from the black market. 

More importantly he said those who got the first jab could wait for six months for the second dose, based on the latest recommendations made by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“Violation of human rights”

On the same day, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, making the appeal, urged World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to resolve the shortage of the AstraZeneca Covishield in Sri Lanka and stressed that the issue was “a violation of human rights”. 

It is ironic that the SLPP Government has to seek assistance from the UNHCR, with which it has been at loggerheads after being asked to address past human rights violations particularly at the end of and after the 26-year war. 

The fact is that Sri Lanka is desperate for AstraZeneca just to make sure all those who got it as the first jab get the same before the stipulated time gap is over. This gap was originally decided by the WHO as between four to 12 weeks. The country witnessed the desperation from nearly 100 people going to Unawatuna, Galle from Colombo during the travel restriction time to have their second jabs, which is now being probed by the Police.  

A group of eminent academics, professionals, and civic activists, led by former Colombo University Vice-Chancellor Prof. Savitri Gunasekera, who wrote to the Director General of Health earlier this month together with some others, have now written a follow-up letter to the President, Prime Minister, the Health Minister and State Ministers of Health.

“All those who received the first AstraZeneca vaccine in the initial phase of the Ministry of Health vaccination programme (after February 2021), have a right to receive the second in the manner that is medically recommended,” they said in the letter. 

“There is a lack of clarity in regard to the recommended period of time between the two doses of the vaccine. Already three months have passed since the first AstraZeneca vaccine was administered. A prolonged lapse of time between the vaccines can make the vaccine ineffective. This will impact on the success of the vaccination campaign in responding to the COVID pandemic. It is the duty of the Health Ministry to ensure that the second AstraZeneca vaccine is given to persons who received the first, as soon as the vaccines come to the country, without any further delays.”

The current situations could have been avoided if not for Sri Lanka’s over-reliance on India and some of its past foreign policies.

[The writer is former Reuters Economic Reporter for Sri Lanka and current Head of Training at Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) Sri Lanka. He can be reached at]