VACCINE VAGARIES
India Today|May 10, 2021
THE NATIONAL VACCINATION DRIVE FACES SUPPLY, DISTRIBUTION AND PRICING HURDLES
AMARNATH K. MENON and P.B. JAYAKUMAR

Beginning May 1, the Great Indian Vaccine Rollout will now cover millions of people in the 18-44 age bracket across the country in the inoculation drive against Covid-19. Except that the numbers are humongous and will be a lot more challenging than holding a general election or even taking a citizens’ headcount in the decadal Census. When it was launched on January 16, the phased rollout of the programme was in sync with the availability of Covid vaccines in the country. The first priority was the healthcare and frontline workers dealing with the pandemic. Then it was the turn of those above 60 years where mortality rates were the highest for the virus. So far, so good. The nation could easily meet the demand as vaccine hesitancy saw only half the numbers of the eligible group enrol. The ready availability of vaccine stocks also meant that India could export 65 million doses to needy nations.

Things began to go awry in late March when the government lowered the age for vaccine eligibility to 45 years and above from April 1 and demand began outstripping supply. Central government officials defended themselves by pointing out that India had vaccinated over 143 million people, and while it was not the largest number (the US and China have inoculated more), it was still the fastest in terms of the number of days taken. What those figures masked was the uncomfortable fact that they covered barely 1.5 per cent of the population. Of those reckoned as most vulnerable (above 60), only 50 per cent of an estimated 120 million have been vaccinated so far, including 9.3 million who had also received the second dose by April 27. Some 60 million senior citizens remain to be covered even as, from April 1, another 200 million of those 45 years and above joined the queue for the vaccine.

What sent matters into a tailspin was the second Covid wave which hit the country at around the same time. The ferocity of the virus attack unnerved both the central and state governments, upsetting their leisurely paced vaccination programme. As a medical emergency engulfed the country, the Narendra Modi government came in for stringent criticism from the Opposition, not only for claiming a premature victory over the pandemic but also for not ramping up its vaccination programme fast enough and playing to the international gallery by exporting vaccines that could have been used to protect its own citizens.

Faced with mounting criticism over the handling of the second wave, Prime Minister Modi, as he tends to do in the face of adversity, decided to radically alter India’s vaccination programme. He announced that from May 1, those above 18, too, would be eligible for the vaccine. The numbers to be vaccinated shot up to 900 million almost overnight. Given that each person needs two doses of the vaccine for full immunity, this means the country needs 1.8 billion doses. With the current monthly production of the two Indian vaccine manufacturers pegged at 110 million doses a month, it would take a year and a half to fully vaccinate every citizen above 18 years. Clearly, an unsatisfactory situation was at hand, given the resilience of the pandemic and the successive waves of infections it could cause. So, Modi made some more dramatic announcements to boost the production and delivery of the vaccines. But even these raised more questions than answers.

OVERCOMING THE SHORTAGE

To boost vaccine production, the Modi government decided it would not only help the two domestic manufacturers but also open the sector to imports from foreign manufacturers, including clearing a third vaccine, the Russian-made Sputnik V, for import and distribution. For the two Indian vaccine manufacturers, Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech, who make Covishield and Covaxin respectively, the government-sanctioned grants totalling a little over Rs 4,500 crore, to expand capacities. SII is to raise its share from 70 million to 100 million doses by July while Bharat Biotech needs to take it from 30 million to 58 million doses by August. The repayment of these grants is linked with the two companies selling a fixed amount of doses at a low cost to the Centre.

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