For India, which boasts for having carried out successful immunization programs like Pulse Polio, BCG and MMR, to hit so many roadblocks in its Covid inoculation program is a manifestation of policy paralysis and ruthless politics.
- In the wake of the exponential increase in the number of active Covid-19 cases, the Indian government opened up Phase 3 vaccination for everyone in the 18+ age group.
- However, several states had to temporarily shut down their vaccination drives as both the Covishield and Covaxin vaccines ran out of stock.
- As vaccine shortages grip India, the centre faces criticism over the lack of a coordinated national jab strategy.
- The centre had ordered an additional 110 million doses of Covishield in March after a gap of two months, and only after infections had begun climbing steeply.
The third phase of the Covid-19 vaccination drive in India, which makes everyone above 18 years eligible for inoculation, got underway on May 1. Strictly in principle. Given the mounting shortage of vaccine doses across India, it is unlikely that the beneficiaries of Phase II of the drive will get their second jabs in time. From failed registrations to vaccines running out of stock and cancellation of appointments, a host of snarls have already been delaying the process for many in the 45+ category.
Amid these shortages, the registration for those in the 18-45 year age bracket began on April 28. The union health minister Dr. Harsha Vardhan tweeted, “In just first 3 hours: 80L+ people registered, 1.45 cr SMS successfully delivered, 38.3 cr API hits recorded”, but he left out the most crucial detail – that none of those who were able to register successfully could find a slot for getting vaccinated May 1 onward. Or on any date in the near future.
Stark Shortages Derail Covid Vaccination Drive
On May 1, the day India was to open its Covid vaccination drive for all adults, it could administer only 1.83 million doses – one of the lowest in days – due to hospitals running out of doses. Now, the head of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer has warned that the situation will persist for months ahead. According to Poonawalla’s projections, the Serum Institute would be able to ramp up production from 60-70 million to 100 million doses a month only by July.
Watch: Being a leading producer of vaccines why is India facing a vaccine shortage?
He added that his Pune-based facility had not expanded capacity so far because of lack of orders from the government. According to him, the central government has ordered 21 million doses from the Serum Institute. An additional 110 million doses were ordered in March after a gap of two months, and only after infections had begun climbing steeply.
“There were no orders, we did not think we needed to make more than 1bn doses a year.”Serum Institute of India CEO, Adar Poonawalla
States Unsure of Rolling Out Vaccines
As the central government threw the vaccination drive wide open, it also made a pivot in its policy. The Covid vaccine program, which was being controlled and run by the Centre, has been reassigned to the states. Of the fresh stock of vaccines – as and when they arrive – 50 percent would be procured by the Centre to complete the inoculation of those in the 45+ age bracket, and the rest would be distributed among the states to get Phase III off the ground.
The matter of disparity in prices for the Centre and States has raised a debate storm. Serum Institute that has been selling Covishield to the Centre for Rs 150 a dose, at marginal profits, will offer the same vaccine to state governments for Rs 300 a dose – the price has been revised from the original Rs 400 in what the Serum CEO called a ‘philanthropic gesture’ without outlining the fact that at double the price, this is still the costliest Oxford-AstraZeneca jab that is selling anywhere in the world and contributing significantly to his bottom line – and Rs 600 for private hospitals.
The same pattern can be seen replicated in the pricing of Covaxin manufactured by Bharat Biotech. The vaccine which is being sold to the Centre for Rs 150 a dose will cost the states Rs 400 a dose – after the company slashed the originally announced price of Rs 600 – and Rs 1,200 a dose for private hospitals.
Even so, 23 states – Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Sikkim, Bengal, Assam, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Karnataka – have announced they’ll vaccinate their resident for free.
The trouble is they don’t have doses to get started. As a result, many states, including Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana Rajasthan, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, have already suspended the vaccination drive until stocks are procured. Others are likely to follow suit.
Vaccination Fiasco: A Politics-made Disaster
For India, which boasts for having carried out successful immunization programs like Pulse Polio, BCG and Mums-Measles-Rubella and is heralded as the ‘pharmacy of the world, to hit so many roadblocks in its Covid inoculation program is a manifestation of policy paralysis and ruthless politics.
The Centre should have focused on procuring vaccines at all costs, maintaining supplies through timely contracts, stimulus for production expansion and subsidies, and then distributed them to the states for effective and flexible grass-root distribution. Instead, caught in the spate of a second wave it wasn’t able to foresee, the Union government has been seen passing the buck on to the states, washing its hands off all accountability.
With no clear supply strategy, production targets or even uniform pricing, we may soon witness an unsustainable bidding war between states and private players, with allocation based on whoever gets their hands on the vaccine rather than a clear, coherent strategy. The price will be paid by the country’s poorest and marginalized.
At a time when broad-scale vaccination is the only tangible solution to stop virus mutations and control the severity of the disease, politics over policy will only fuel the disaster we see unfolding all around us.