When a Bahraini prince flew to Nepal to climb Mount Everest this week, he didn’t show up empty-handed: Among his cargo were some 2,000 coronavirus vaccine doses, according posts on his climbing team’s Instagram account.
It quickly became evident that the gesture, intended as a munificent gift for a remote mountain village, would turn out to be more of an international faux pas.
Nepal bans drug imports without permission, and health officials there said they had no idea that Sheikh Mohamed Hamad Mohamed al-Khalifa planned to carry out his own small-scale vaccination campaign. Taken by surprise, regulators are investigating the breach of protocols, and have yet to make a decision on whether the doses can be used.
“We have deployed a team of drug inspectors to investigate how the vaccines were brought into the country without any prior approval,” Bharat Bhattarai, director general of the Department of Drug Administration, told the Kathmandu Post. “We did not know that vaccines were being imported from Bahrain.”
Both Bahrain’s government and the Nepalese trekking company leading the expedition have said that permission to import the vaccines was granted by Nepal’s embassy in Bahrain, which apparently failed to alert health officials and drug regulators back in Kathmandu. That’s led to an awkward situation, as authorities seek to avoid the impression that wealthy foreigners can simply show up and distribute vaccine doses as they see fit, even if such a gift could be difficult to turn down.
Further complicating the matter, the Kathmandu Post on Thursday quoted anonymous Nepali health officials as saying that the vaccines were manufactured by Chinese maker Sinovac, whose coronavirus vaccine has not been approved for emergency use in Nepal.
But the Nepali Embassy in Bahrain has claimed that the prince donated Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine doses, which is already being administered in Nepal. Nepal’s health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the origin of the doses.
Nepal recently reopened Mount Everest to foreign climbers, and al-Khalifa traveled to the country with a team of more than dozen mountaineers who hope to attempt the summit later this month. Most are members of Bahrain’s royal guard, which the prince commands.
Last fall, Nepal renamed a mountain in honor of Bahrain’s royals, whose vast wealth has funded extensive mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas. In a Monday Instagram post, Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, another member of the royal family, said that the Bahrain Everest team intended to scale that peak before tackling the world’s highest summit.
“While they are climbing, they will pass by a village with 1,000 citizens living by the Bahrain Royal Peaks and get them all vaccinated,” he wrote.
In theory, the gesture should have been a welcome one. Like many developing nations, Nepal has struggled to access enough doses for its entire population, and only about 400,000 doses have been administered in a country of more than 28 million. Bahrain, by contrast, is outpacing most of the world and has administered initial shots to more than 20 percent of its population.
Donating surplus shots isn’t as simple as it sounds: Nepali regulators require a slew of paperwork proving that temperature-sensitive doses have been kept adequately cold while in transit, among other considerations.
It’s also unclear whether the Bahrain Everest team includes a doctor or nurse who could administer the shots, or whether those logistics would be left up to locals. Furthermore, the Kathmandu Post pointed out, Nepal is currently restricting vaccines to select priority groups and the plan to vaccinate just one village would seem to violate those rules. Creating a precedent could be dangerous and could lead to even more inequality in who gets to access vaccines.
“Some other people can say that they will bring certain doses for a certain number of people or for their family members and relatives,” a health ministry official told the paper. “And how can we allow the jabs to the population of a certain area only?”