The decision to allow foreign vaccines into the country to increase the choice and access should have been taken a few months ago. Though delayed, it is a welcome move. It comes amidst a massive surge in the caseload due to a more virulent Covid-19 second wave sweeping across the country and the reports of vaccine shortages in several States. The inoculation drive, bogged down by a sluggish pace, will surely receive a shot in the arm with the Drug Controller General clearing the Russian vaccine — Sputnik V—for emergency use. This, coupled with a move to fast-track similar approvals for Covid-19 vaccines already approved in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and Japan, or which are in the World Health Organization’s emergency use inventory, would help in addressing the current shortage and accelerating the vaccination coverage. The additions to the vaccine mix could help ease the pressure on Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech to scale up the production of Covishield and Covaxin, the two vaccines now available for use in the country. The challenge before the government now is to work out a mutually agreeable pricing and procurement strategy to ensure a smooth rollout of the foreign vaccines. India’s inoculation efforts are now dependent on the stretched production capacity of these two manufacturers. The only way to achieve vaccination on a large scale in a short time is to have more vaccines. The country’s rigid and excruciatingly time-consuming approval system had subjected foreign pharmaceuticals to multiple regulatory compliances, resulting in restricting the production of vaccines that are elsewhere approved and have undergone clinical trials.
While the government can proceed with inoculating the target audience at low costs, the restriction placed on individuals who have the ability to pay, will only result in slowing down the efforts of immunising the entire population. Many private firms have shown interest in vaccinating their employees. The government should permit vaccine producers to sell their doses commercially. This will help the government direct the free and subsidised doses to the poorer and underserved sections. It is important that the government leverages the capacity of the private sector to achieve its objectives. Traditionally, in India, there has been little incentive for private companies to build a scale or invest in technology because the state regulates the prices. As a result, even in the midst of a devastating second wave, the country finds itself short of capacities for Covid-19 testing and vaccine production. Though India reached the 10-crore-vaccination-mark, which is an impressive feat by itself, it, however, amounts to less than 8% of the population. In contrast, the US and the UK have vaccinated half their population.
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