Everything you need to know about COVID-19 vaccination in South Asia

No one is safe until everyone is safe

UNICEF South Asia
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UNICEF/UN0402749/Reddy
01 April 2021

Vaccinating the world against COVID-19 is one of the largest mass undertakings in human history — and efforts are well underway.  

But no one is safe until everyone is safe.  

That’s why UNICEF is working with WHO, partners and governments across the world through the COVAX facility, a global effort to ensure COVID-19 vaccines reach the most in need — whoever they are and wherever they live.  

In 2021, COVAX aims to make 2 billion safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccines available to those in the world that need them the most.  

As part of COVAX, UNICEF is leading the procurement and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, drawing on decades of experience as the largest vaccine buyer in the world. 

We spoke to UNICEF expert Srihari Dutta, working on the frontlines of the largest health and logistics operation in history, about how vaccines are being rolled out in South Asia. 

 

How are countries in South Asia getting COVID-19 vaccines? 

In South Asia, vaccines are being supplied to countries in two different ways: 

  1. Through the COVAX facility 

The COVAX facility (UNICEF, WHO and partners) is part of a global effort to speed up the development, production and equal access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines. 

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance

The COVAX facility aims to make sure vaccines are equitably distributed. 190 countries have joined up so far. COVAX pools the buying power of these countries to support the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines across the world. It buys vaccines directly from manufacturers, so that as vaccines become available, any country, regardless of their ability to pay, has the same access to them.  

Through this collaboration, COVAX will help countries with: 

  • Early access to effective vaccines. 
  • Access to the world’s largest and most diverse portfolio of vaccine candidates. 
  • Securing enough vaccines for 20% of their populations.  

All 8 countries in the South Asia region — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — are participating in the COVAX facility.   

 

  1. Through each country’s government  

Governments are negotiating directly with different vaccine manufacturers, and other governments, to procure vaccines for their citizens. These agreements are at different stages in each country. 

 

When will my country get COVID-19 vaccines? 

Vaccines secured by governments 

Governments in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have already started vaccinations, with vaccines secured directly from manufacturers.

In all countries, health workers and other frontline workers have been among the first to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Vaccines secured through COVAX

The COVAX facility has already started delivering COVID-19 vaccines in South Asia. 

At the start of March, over one million vaccines landed in Nepal, Maldives, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. 

COVAX will continue vaccine deliveries to the region throughout 2021, to help countries vaccinate 20 percent of their population — so that no country is pushed to the back of the line.

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UNICEF/UN0427065/Fazel
COVID-19 vaccines shipped by COVAX arrive in Afghanistan. From left: Sheema Sen Gupta, UNICEF Afghanistan Representative a.i., David Lai, WHO Officer-in-Charge at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghansitan.

Which vaccine will my country get? 

Governments have the final say on the vaccines that will be used in their countries.  

There are more than 200 vaccine candidates currently in development, with many in the final stages of approval. The COVAX facility will distribute any vaccine approved by WHO. As soon as vaccines are proved to be safe, effective, and become available, COVAX will deliver them. 

WHO has already approved the Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca-Oxford and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccines. These will be some of the first vaccines delivered through COVAX.   

UNICEF has developed the COVID-19 vaccine dashboard which provides an overview of all the vaccines in the pipeline globally, their development stage and supply agreements. 

For more information on the national vaccination plans in your country check with your Ministry of Health. 

 

Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine first? 

Vaccines can only be manufactured and distributed at a limited speed — and it’s important that those who need vaccines most get them first.  

Governments are responsible for determining which groups in their country will receive the vaccine first. 

WHO is supporting governments to determine their priority groups. They have advised that priority groups should include: 

  • Health and social care workers on the frontlines. 
  • People over the age of 65.  
  • People under the age of 65 who have underlying health conditions that put them at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19.  
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Staff Nurse Sandhya Chayhan pictured after receiving a vaccine for COVID-19 at Asarva Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad, India, 16 January 2021.

Who will be the next priority for vaccines? 

After priority groups have been vaccinated, and more vaccines become available, governments will identify new priority groups.  

UNICEF is calling for governments to prioritize teachers, child protection and social workers as soon as possible after healthcare workers, to help children and communities get back to normal.  

 

Will vaccines be free? 

All vaccines distributed through the COVAX facility will be free. 

Governments in South Asia have not announced any plans to charge their citizens for vaccines that are part of their national rollouts.

 

Will I get side effects? 

All vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, may cause minor side effects.  

Side effects are the body's response to the vaccine and a sign that your body is building immune protection. 

Common side effects observed with COVID-19 vaccines include: 

  • Some pain and swelling on the arm where you receive the vaccine.  
  • Chills or feeling feverish.  
  • Tiredness.  
  • Headache. 
  • Feeling sick (nausea). 
  • Joint pain or muscle ache.  

These side effects typically go away within a few days. 

After you have been vaccinated, you will have to stay at the vaccination center for 20-30 minutes for observation. This is to monitor your reaction to the vaccine and make sure help is on hand if you do experience any severe side effects. 

Severe side effects are rare. But, if they do happen they are most likely to do so within the first 30 minutes after being vaccinated. Waiting in the center during this period, means that medical workers will be able to treat you immediately if you experience any severe side-effects. 

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UNICEF Nepal/2021/LPrasad
A health worker in Nepal is vaccinated on 27 January 2021.

Can pregnant women get vaccinated? 

Pregnant women were not included in vaccine trials. So, there is not yet any data on if the vaccine is safe and effective for them. 

However, pregnant women are at a higher risk of getting severe COVID-19 than non-pregnant women. So, WHO have advised pregnant women with an unavoidable high risk of being exposed to COVID-19, such as health workers, to talk about vaccination options with their healthcare provider.

Keep in mind that research is ongoing and this advice will be reviewed when more data becomes available. We’ll keep you updated as we learn more. If you have concerns, talk to your healthcare provider. 

Guidance on other vaccines and their suitability for pregnant women can be found with vaccine manufacturers.

 

When will children get vaccinated? 

So far, COVID-19 vaccine trials have focused on people above 16 years of age. This means it is not yet clear if these vaccines are safe and effective for children.

WHO has said that some companies have already started studies to look at lower age groups. Once they have these results, they can start making COVID-19 vaccine recommendations for children. We’ll keep you updated as we learn more.

In the meantime, it’s important that your child continues to receive their routine childhood vaccinations. Learn how you can do so safely here.

 

Do I need to wear a mask once I’ve had the vaccine? 

Yes. After being vaccinated for COVID-19 you should continue to wear a mask, wash your hands and keep physical distance from others.  

This is because no vaccine is 100% effective. In addition, while COVID-19 vaccines have proven effective at stopping people developing the virus, we don't yet know whether they prevent people from passing infection onto others.  

This means that, until we know more, it’s vital that everyone who gets the vaccine continues to take precautions such as physical distancing, consistent use of face masks, regular handwashing with soap and clean water, and avoiding crowded places.

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UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Mawa
Health workers in Bangladesh after being vaccinated against COVID-19.

I’ve had COVID-19. Do I still need a vaccine? 

Yes. WHO recommends that people who have had suspected or confirmed COVID-19 still get vaccinated.  

This is because we still do not know how strong the protection that people develop after recovering from COVID-19 is  — or how long it lasts.  

This means that if you've had COVID-19 in the past, you should still get vaccinated. 

 

If I have COVID-19 symptoms when I am due to get vaccinated, should I go? 

No. If you have COVID-19, or symptoms that suggest you may have COVID-19, do not go to your vaccination appointment.  

This is because you could spread the virus to others at the vaccination site.  

You can get vaccinated when it has been 14 days since you last showed COVID-19 symptoms.  

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UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Mawa
Bangladeshi health worker, Ismat Jahan Sarkar smiles after receiving her vaccine for COVID-19.

How quickly could COVID-19 vaccines stop the pandemic? 

Vaccines are a gamechanger in the fight against COVID-19. But, they are not a silver bullet and won’t stop the pandemic immediately.  

Vaccination works as a protective shield — shielding the vaccinated person, and those around, them from the virus. People who are vaccinated protect those who are not. 

As more people get vaccinated, the protection within a community builds —  and the circulation of a disease is stopped or slowed. This is called ‘herd immunity’.    

But, the massive global demand for COVID-19 vaccines means that it will take months — or even years — to vaccinate enough people to build herd immunity globally.  

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are the fastest and most effective way to get the lives of children and families back to normal again. But we must do what we can to help the process and continue protecting our families, and one another, by: 

  • Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or using hand sanitizer — as often as you can. 
  • Keeping at least 1 metre distance between yourself and others.
  • Meeting people in well ventilated, or outdoor spaces. 
  • Wearing a mask when you can’t keep your distance from others, or are inside a public space. (Guidance on children and mask use can be found here.) 

 

This article was originally published on 17 February 2021. It was last updated on 1 April 2021. This article will continue to be updated to reflect the latest information.