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Clarify basis, rationale of differential vaccine pricing: Supreme Court tells Centre

“The Union of India shall also clarify in its affidavit the basis and rationale adopted in regard to the pricing of vaccines," a Bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat said.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: April 28, 2021 2:42:37 am
Covid patients with oxygen support wait to get admission at Civil hospital in Gandhinagar. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

THE Supreme Court Tuesday flagged differential vaccine pricing during a suo motu hearing on issues regarding Covid-19 management, asking for a clarification from the Centre on the issue, even as in an affidavit the government challenged the “completely false narrative” that it had failed to anticipate the second surge.

“The Union of India shall also clarify in its affidavit the basis and rationale adopted in regard to the pricing of vaccines,” a Bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat said.

Pointing out that “different manufacturers are quoting different prices”, Justice Bhat told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta: “There are powers under the Drugs Control Act and Patents Act. This is a pandemic and a national crisis. If this is not the time to invoke such powers, what is the time?”

The Bench also clarified that its hearing of Covid-19 matters would not “supplant or substitute the process of hearings undertaken by various High Courts to deal with issues related to the pandemic”, adding that it cannot be a “mute spectator” during “a national crisis”.

In its affidavit to the Court Tuesday, the Centre listed the steps taken by it to meet the Covid-19 challenge, enumerating measures to boost oxygen supply on “a war footing” and ensuring drug supplies, and said it was implementing “innovative measures” with the “active and constant supervision and direct involvement of” Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. “… right from the inception till present critical times, the Central Government has taken various steps in the most professional manner to equip the nation with everything required in case of continuance/surge in the pandemic”, the affidavit said, flaying the “completely false narrative that after the onset of Covid pandemic, during its peak impact and thereafter the nation did nothing and is caught unaware in the second surge”.

At the hearing, the Court asked the Centre to “clarify the projected requirement of vaccine as a result of enhancement of coverage” — starting May 1, when vaccination opens to all above the age of 18 — and to put in place modalities to look into shortages and deficit.

The Court asked for similar details on oxygen, asking the Solicitor General to appraise it about the supply, the projected need of states, the basis of allocation of oxygen from the central pool and the methodology adopted to communicate requirements of states.

Fixing the matter for next hearing on April 30, the Bench also sought to know details regarding enhancement of critical medical requirements, including Covid-19 beds, and steps taken to ensure essential drugs such as remdesivir and favipiravir.

On the petitions pending in high courts, the Bench sought to address apprehensions expressed by some corners of the legal community about the apex court taking up the matter when High Courts were better equipped to deal with local issues. The “purpose of this Court assuming jurisdiction suo motu under Article 32 is not to supplant or substitute the process of hearings undertaken by various High Courts to deal with issues related to pandemic”, the Bench said.

The Bench noted that High Courts were best situated to make assessment of ground realities in each state and find flexible solutions for problems faced by citizens.

Stressing that the Supreme Court’s intervention must be understood in the correct perspective, the Bench added, “… during a national crisis, the Supreme Court cannot be a mute spectator. The role of the Supreme Court is complimentary in nature. The issues which travail state boundaries is what this court will look into and thus Article 32 jurisdiction has been assumed.”

Earlier, when the Supreme Court had taken up the matter suo motu, then Chief Justice of India S A Bobde had said there could be “some confusion” and “diversion of resources” with several courts hearing the matter, and that some might prioritise one group and another, some other.

The Solicitor General said Tuesday that the government was not against the Supreme Court or a High Court hearing the matter. “We are not questioning anyone’s jurisdiction.”

Mehta added that there are generally no issues of one state versus another, and if any, these were being ironed out. “It is not about A party or B party or one state or another. The nation stands together,” he said.

The Bench also appointed Senior Advocates Jaideep Bose and Meenakshi Arora as amicus curiae to assist it in the matter. While Senior Advocate Harish Salve had been appointed as amicus curiae in the case earlier by ex-CJI Bobde, he had withdrawn following objections to his name by some senior lawyers.

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