Saying there is a “tearing emergency” to fast-track approvals and “handhold” vaccine manufacturers in the country, the Delhi High Court on Wednesday said some people need to be “charged with manslaughter” for sitting on the “untapped potential” of Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing.
“What answer will you give for the loss of lives because of lack of vaccines?” the court asked the Centre in another strong indictment of its vaccine policy.
“There is such an element of palpable disquiet throughout the country. Everybody wants the vaccine. You have to cut this (process) short and somehow make the vaccine available,” a division bench of Justices Manmohan and Najmi Waziri said.
Observing that vaccine manufacturers were not being handheld, the court said this could be happening because of fear of vigilance or police investigations. “You have to tell them (officers) that this is not the time to be wary of these investigations or audit reports. This is leading to deaths today. Actually some people need to be charged with manslaughter if they have been just sitting over this untapped potential,” the court said while hearing an application filed by Panacea Biotec for release of the money awarded to it in 2019 by an arbitral tribunal in a 2010 case related to the manufacture of influenza vaccines.
The company, which has collaborated with the Russian Direct Investment Fund, told the court in its application that it would be deprived of the opportunity to manufacture Sputnik V vaccine at “fastest pace” in case the money awarded to it — Rs 14 crore with interest of 12 per cent per annum from 2012 — is not released.
The Centre had moved the Delhi High Court against the arbitral tribunal’s decision in favour of Panacea. In March last year, a single bench of the High Court dismissed the Centre’s challenge and the matter is now pending before a division bench of the court.
In its reply, the Centre, represented by Additional Solicitor General Balbir Singh, told the court that the matter regarding vaccines is pending before the Supreme Court and described Panacea’s application as a bargaining and pressure tactic. Only Dr Reddy’s has been granted permission to import Sputnik for restricted use in India, the Centre said.
On the need to encourage vaccine manufacturers, the court said, “There is a lot of scope and infrastructure which is available for manufacturing of vaccines. This untapped potential has to be utilised. Your officers are not realising this. People from abroad are coming. You have good vaccines in India. You handhold these vaccine manufacturers and take them all over India and tell them this hub is available and use this. There is an emergency.”
The court had on Monday pulled up the Centre for saying it does not have any information regarding the readiness or availability of the Sputnik V vaccine being manufactured by Panacea Biotec.
On Wednesday, the court said if Sputnik V has been permitted for import and use in India, the Centre only needs to see if the vaccine being manufactured by Panacea Biotec is the same. “One’s concern is only that we should not be found wanting or caught unawares. We need to get doses like crores and crores everyday. We have to vaccinate people. What are we waiting for,” the court observed.
The Centre told the court that Panacea’s manufacture of Sputnik V may not help India as its supply is meant for global sale. The Centre also said the company’s samples in India are still pending approval with the statutory authority, which means Panacea is still a month away from commercial production.
To this, Panacea argued that the government had on June 1 waived the bridge trials for certain foreign vaccines, and that it could do the same for the company to ensure faster vaccine production.
Questioning the Centre for holding Panacea to higher standards when compared to Dr Reddy’s, which is importing the same product from Russia, the court said, “The rule itself empowers you to say ‘we will waive this’ if you in your wisdom think you would like to waive (bridge trials) because for an identical product which is imported, you are waiving it for them… You can dispense with it. But you will not do it. What does it mean? You are just sitting over it and sticking by the rulebook when the rulebook itself says in emergent circumstances you can do that,” the court said, reserving its order for Friday.