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How an obscure country became a COVID-19 vaccine ‘success story’

In one week, this country fully vaccinated 90% of its eligible adult population with their second dose

Monks from Paro’s monastic body perform a ritual as 500,000 doses of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine gifted from the United States arrived at Paro International Airport in Bhutan
This photograph provided by UNICEF shows monks from Paro’s monastic body performing a ritual as 500,000 doses of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine gifted from the United States arrived at Paro International Airport in Bhutan, July 12, 2021.
UNICEF via Associated Press

Against the odds, high altitudes, rugged terrain and limited supplies, the small Himalayan country of Bhutan implemented one of the fastest and most efficient vaccination campaigns of the entire pandemic, reported The Washington Post.

  • In one week, Bhutan fully vaccinated 90% of its eligible adult population with their second doses, reported The Wall Street Journal.
  • Bhutan, nestled between China and India, has become a “beacon of hope” for its neighbors currently struggling with slow-moving vaccinations and fast-moving outbreaks, per CNN.

The South Asian country of about 800,000 people has proved to be one of the most successful countries in combating COVID-19 outbreaks, reported CNN. Unlike other countries whose initial COVID-19 successes subsided as the delta variant spread, Bhutan’s pandemic response has become only more successful.

How fast did Bhutan vaccinate its population?

Bhutan fully vaccinated more than 60% of its total population in two rapid phases, reported The Wall Street Journal.

  • During March’s Phase 1, Bhutan partially vaccinated 93% of its eligible population in just two weeks using donated AstraZeneca vaccines from India, per The Wall Street Journal.
  • During July’s Phase 2, Bhutan fully vaccinated 90% of its eligible population in just one week using a combination of Moderna, Sinopharm and AstraZeneca vaccines, per The Wall Street Journal.
  • Most people received a different second dose, per The Washington Post.

Now, Bhutan has fully vaccinated 61.8% of the total population, per The Wall Street Journal. Comparatively, neighboring India has fully vaccinated 7% of its population, Nepal only 5%, and Bangladesh only 2.6% — with all three currently struggling under surges driven by the delta variant.

  • Bhutan’s efforts were “arguably the fastest vaccination campaign to be executed during a pandemic,” said UNICEF on Tuesday, per The Wall Street Journal.

While Bhutan made its rapid vaccination campaign look easy, the country spent months preparing and planning the effort, per The Washington Post.

What made vaccination rollouts so difficult in Bhutan?

Every step of Bhutan’s national vaccination campaign involved logistical complications. The country struggled to secure COVID-19 vaccines after India delayed shipments of AstraZeneca to prioritize its own outbreaks, per The Wall Street Journal.

  • Instead, Bhutan called for international help. The U.S., China, and Denmark responded, reported The Washington Post.

But to even get vaccine shipments into the country, Bhutan had to send pilots internationally to meet the delivery planes, per CNN.

  • “Bhutan’s only international airport, Paro, has one of the world’s most dangerous approaches,” reported CNN.
  • The approach into Paro “involves a steep bank through Himalayan peaks onto a short runway. Less than 20 pilots are certified to make the landing,” per CNN.

After vaccines arrived in Bhutan, they had to be distributed across the country. This involved a chain of fridges to keep vaccines cold, helicopter deliveries to higher altitude communities and carrying vaccines on foot — sometimes for hours — to remote villages, reported CNN.

  • More than 2,400 health workers and 22,000 volunteers were involved in the campaign, reported CNN.
  • Before the pandemic, Bhutan had only 37 doctors, per The Washington Post.
  • Now, Bhutan has trained thousands of health workers to implement its pandemic response, per CNN.

Finally, workers then went door to door vaccinating people. Some even trekked hours to find and vaccinate nomadic herders in the Himalayas, reported The Wall Street Journal. The efforts paid off.

What is COVID-19 like in Bhutan?

After recording its first COVID-19 case in March 2020, Bhutan quickly implemented border closures, mass testing, contact tracing, social distancing and strict lockdown and quarantine measures, reported CNN. These measures have stayed in place.

Guiding the country’s response are three of Bhutan’s top government officials — the prime minister, health minister and foreign minister — who come from medical backgrounds, per The Washington Post. The officials have led strong educational campaigns to dispel fears and counter misinformation about vaccines.

  • Bhutan’s “exhaustive efforts” are an “extraordinary achievement,” said UNICEF, per The Washington Post.