Indian vaccine drive’s straining, not taking flight. Loosen purse strings for vax companies

With officials in multiple states – including some BJP ruled ones – complaining of vaccine shortages even as the second Covid wave accelerates, the Centre must come clean on vaccine supply. Health minister Harsh Vardhan’s sharp response to Maharashtra’s demand for more vaccines, blaming the state’s containment measures, is unhelpful. States where caseloads are rising sharply must get doses they seek. Centre’s criteria  – those who need the vaccine, not those who want it – isn’t persuasive amid a second wave fuelled primarily by younger people. Bureaucrats deciding who gets what amid several unknowns and variables is a sure recipe for shortages – as indeed are showing up now.

Meanwhile, Serum Institute has asked Centre for Rs 3,000 crore to support efforts to ramp up production. The company’s request signals inability to scale up solely from earnings on Covid-19 vaccine sales. The Rs 150 price point may be choking vaccine production and will likely drive away other vaccine makers. The Centre must recall it had earmarked Rs 35,000 crore in this year’s budget for Covid-19 vaccines. SII’s request is just a fraction of this war chest, while daily economic losses from ongoing movement curbs are several magnitudes higher. SII has shouldered most of the vaccination burden, including a risky Covishield manufacture much ahead of market approval.

The government must take a cue from US’s Operation Warp Speed, accelerating public funding for vaccine companies. The trust in private sector initiative has culminated in President Biden commencing universal adult vaccination from April 19. The Centre could also have allowed parallel vaccine sales in the open market from January, thereby facilitating returns on investment for companies to expand production. Delay in approving other vaccines now being administered to millions across the world, even three months after Covaxin was hurriedly granted emergency use authorisation without completing Phase 3 trials, is another missed opportunity. Even if they are granted approval now, weeks could pass before they are brought to market.

Meanwhile, intensifying movement curbs resemble a limited lockdown. Simplistic, populist solutions damaging the economy without serving any medical or virus suppression purpose – like vaccine rationing and night curfews – make for poor decision making amidst surging cases. Stop the official talk on imposing lockdowns that hurt livelihoods and access to vaccination, harp instead on N95 masking. Further, set up field hospitals and ramp up oxygen supply again, since there’s no knowing how big this second wave will get.


This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.


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