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Explained Ideas: How India failed in procuring enough Covid-19 vaccines

Centre promises two billion vaccines by year-end but vaccine famine in the interim is being glossed over, writes Coomi Kapoor.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 18, 2021 8:14:57 am
At a vaccination centre in Thane (Express photo/Deepak Joshi)

In early 2020, Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer (in terms of dosages, not turnover) struck a deal to produce a billion doses for developing countries, including India. By the end of December 2020, SII had stockpiled 200 million doses, even before the Indian health authorities had cleared the vaccine for use.

At the beginning of the year, the narrative was that India was going ahead with the world’s largest vaccine programme with confidence, by banking on two trusted vaccines. Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan claimed three weeks after the start of the vaccination drive that India was the fastest to reach the five million mark in 21 days.

But, writes Coomi Kapoor, consulting editor of The Indian Express, Bhushan failed to take into account that five million was a drop in the ocean for a country of 1.4 billion. Two months were frittered away on a leisurely search for health and frontline workers, many of whom did not show up. V K Paul, head of the Covid Task Force, declared triumphantly that the government was confident in its delivery system.

“Unfortunately, Paul failed to do his elementary sums,” she writes.

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The SII was producing about 60 to 70 million doses a month and Bharat Biotech at best 15 per cent of this number.

Once the vaccine was opened to all above 60 in March, a reality check set in. “Our biggest assets, two indigenous vaccine producers, were unable to meet demands because they had been provided no incentive to expand facilities by the government, which has also not thought of offering Covaxin’s IPR to other Indian manufacturers,” she states.

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It was only in April that the government finally provided adequate financial incentives to the two manufacturers, something it should have had the forethought to do at least six months earlier, following the example of the US and Europe.

Moreover, by purchasing the vaccine at Rs 250, of which Rs 100 was the hospital’s share, we were crushing, not incentivising vaccine manufacture in India. Only businesswoman Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw was forthright enough to point this out.

The central vaccine task force finally woke up to the fact that there was going to be a serious vaccine shortfall by late April. Unfortunately, some Opposition states played into the Modi government’s hands by the populist demand that the vaccine drive be opened to all above the age of 18. The Centre was happy to oblige.

Instantaneously, it abdicated its responsibility, perhaps aware that in the chaos which would follow such a move, the blame would now have to be shared by the Opposition governments and the Centre.

A reality check is beginning to register. State governments are waking up to the fact that foreign vaccines would remain unavailable for several months.

The Centre has additionally rigged the game by imposing an unequal pricing formula for domestic vaccines. In the bargain, the positive point of our initial vaccine programme, equitable and relatively fair distribution of vaccines, has been jeopardised in the mad scramble.

“Paul, who likes to look at the bright side, now promises two billion vaccines by year-end. The vaccine famine in the interregnum is glossed over,” she concludes.

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