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Security cover for Mr Adar Poonawalla of SII

The nation is going through a very difficult period for last few weeks because of the second wave of Coronavirus. It does appear this situation will only worsen in the coming weeks. Even after the peak is reached – and no one knows when that will happen – there will be a long struggle till the situation becomes manageable. Enough has been said and written on why we are where we are today. It is more important today to get through this difficult period with least damage than to play the blame game or turn it into a political slug fest as is being done by many.

The most disturbing piece of news on 28 April was that the order issued by Union Home Ministry about providing Y category security cover to Adar Poonawalla, who runs the serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune. Today Adar, along with Krishna Ella of Bharat Biotech, are the two most important and needed people in the country. The reason is obvious as the nation needs the vaccines that they produce. The success of India’s vaccination program depends on the volume of vaccines that these two plants will produce in the coming months. There will be others also in due course who will produce the vaccines but no one will have the same impact as these two in the nation’s fight against the virus.

Is it not shocking that someone who should be prized as a national asset has to be provided security cover because of a threat to his well being from his own people? The government would certainly have received some very dangerous and fool proof indications before it issued the order. The question is who would threaten such valuable individuals in the current times? What kind of threat perception forced the government to take the drastic step of providing Adar Poonawalla government security? Will this be the norm for other manufacturers too?

In addition to being the world’s largest vaccine producer that are often priced at ridiculously low levels to make them affordable for the poor, Adar Poonawalla is also a well-known philanthropist. He has been conferred many awards, national and international, for such work and also for his initiatives under Corporate Social responsibility (CSR). More importantly he normally keeps a low profile and never talks about his charity work or other projects connected with CSR. Is it any wonder that very few had heard about him before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world last year and vaccine became the buzz word?

Call it business sense or whatever you may, but the fact remains Adar showed great foresight to enter into an agreement with Swedish firm AstraZeneca to produce the vaccine being developed in collaboration with Oxford University. It is difficult to imagine where the nation would be today if he had not forged that alliance last year. India would have hardly had any vaccination program to boast of today. Such sons of the soil need to be put on a pedestal but instead we have a situation today where his life is under threat. This is indeed a very poor reflection on our nation as a whole.

It is important to understand that since he is producing a vaccine developed abroad under license, there are bound to be some pay offs involved as also other agreements including delivery of part of production as any business deal should have. Therefore, the company has to make some profit as also there is no way it can divert complete production for local needs. This is where our government should have stepped in before the end of last year and ensured that the company could have increased its capacity. It is on record that both SII and Bharat Biotech had suggested that to the government. But lack of foresight on part of the leadership coupled with our bureaucratic red tape prevented that from happening.

On the pricing front, once again the ball is in the government’s court. After giving all kinds of indications for a nearly free vaccine shot for all, the government came up with a multiple price plan that was wrong on all counts. How can one ever justify different prices for central government and state government purchases? For the common man in the street does it matter which government buys the vaccine that is given to him? In this war like scenario where the nation is coming off second best in its fight against the virus, there was no option for the government but to fund the entire purchase of vaccines. All that was required was to ensure that the manufacturer too received some profits from the agreed price.

Just for record, SII had offered the vaccine at Rs 300 per dose in India while internationally the price for same vaccine dose ranges between USD 15 – 20. To any sane mind this shows clearly that SII has been accommodative in pricing and is not taking the government or public to the cleaners in its bid to make money. But then common man has nothing to do with all these figures. All that he is looking for today is that his government provides him with two doses of the vaccine that can save him from the dreaded virus. If he does not get the same, he is bound to be angry and when public is angry, reason and logic are always the casualties.

Without a doubt the Indian government has floundered overtime and has let the entire nation down. By messing up the vaccine issue, both on production and pricing, they have delivered a wrong message to the public that is now venting its anger on the manufacturers. Things have come to a stage where SII owner has to be provided official protection when instead he should have been receiving accolades and people’s gratitude at every step. It is indeed a sad day for the nation.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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