Bhutan PM says ready to mix COVID-19 doses to deal with vaccine shortages

Bhutan's Prime Minister Lotay Tshering addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 28, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

KATHMANDU/MUMBAI, June 24 (Reuters) - Bhutan's Prime Minister on Thursday said he "has no problem" in mixing-and-matching COVID-19 vaccine doses to immunize a population of about 700,000 people in the tiny Himalayan nation.

Bhutan, nestled between India and China, has one of the world's lowest COVID-19 fatality counts, with just one person dying from the infectious disease since the pandemic began.

Prime Minister Lotay Tshering - who is also a practicing urologist - said over 90% of the country's eligible population had received a first dose of AstraZeneca's (AZN.L) COVID-19 vaccine and that the deadline to administer the second dose after a gap of 12 weeks was scheduled to end this month.

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"Knowing immunology, knowing how our body reacts to vaccines, I am comfortable to secure a second dose of any vaccine that is, of course, approved by the WHO."

Earlier this year India provided 550,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Bhutan. But New Delhi has no surplus now to give to any nation as India exits the worst of a deadly wave of the coronavirus that doubled its death toll in two months.

Tshering said he has reached out to 17 other nations to secure fresh vaccine supplies and delays in procuring the second batch of AstraZeneca vaccine have made Bhutan's political leader consider mixing doses.

Several countries, including Canada and Spain, have already approved mixing doses, mainly due to concerns about rare and potentially fatal blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine. read more

A Spanish study found that giving a dose of the Pfizer (PFE.N) shot to people who had already received the AstraZeneca vaccine is highly safe and effective, according to preliminary results. read more

Tshering, 53, said preventing more deaths requires ongoing vigilance since Bhutan shares a porous border with India, which continues to report a high number of daily COVID-19 cases.

"I have no problem in giving Moderna (MRNA.O) or Pfizer for the second dose ... We have reached out to those companies," he told Reuters during a virtual interview from his hotel room in the capital city of Thimphu.

"There are no countries that don't face vaccine problems ... I will have to be frank with my people," he said, speaking about mixing doses and the shortage of supplies.

Tshering, who has been quarantining after his trip with the king to remote parts of the mountain nation to meet frontline workers, said he would be "the happiest person" to take a second dose of any vaccine.

On Wednesday, Bhutan reported seven new cases in the past 24 hours, taking its total to 1,970 COVID-19 cases.

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Reporting by Gopal Sharma and Rupam Jain; Editing by Tom Hogue

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