Amidst the depressing Covid-19 scenario, marked by shortages of oxygen, hospital beds and emergency medicines, the decision by Telangana and some other States to provide free vaccinations to all is a welcome development. This will go a long way in accelerating the inoculation drive and address the vaccination hesitancy among some sections. Apart from Telangana, which has also announced several other initiatives to ramp up emergency care facilities in hospitals, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Kerala have promised free jabs for all above 18-years. A national vaccination policy designed to step up the coverage without burdening anyone is the need of the hour. There is a strong case for providing vaccines free of cost. Given the public health priority, several countries, including the United States, the UK, Japan, France and China, are providing vaccines for free to all citizens. India should also follow a similar policy so that the poor are not burdened. Though vaccines are the most potent weapon available now in the war against the virus, the Centre’s inoculation policy has been flawed in terms of distribution and pricing. No wonder that it received all-round flak for allowing differential pricing of the vaccines. Without any further loss of time, efforts must be made to formulate a uniform, nationwide free vaccination policy. It must be pointed out that no other country has opted for open market sale of Covid-19 vaccines as yet, because all these vaccines are still under restricted or emergency use permissions and have not yet been fully licensed in their countries of origin.
From May 1 when the coverage will be widened to include all those above 18 years, the vaccine supply will be grouped into two baskets: 50% for the Centre and the remaining for the open market. The State governments, private hospitals and industries that have facilities to administer the vaccine will need to procure doses directly from manufacturers. It is essential that the Centre extends financial assistance to the States for the smooth implementation of free vaccination policy. Since private hospitals will now be procuring the vaccine at a higher price, the cost of a jab is expected to be much higher than in the previous phases. Though the Centre said the prices charged by private hospitals would be monitored, there is still no clarity on how it would be done. There is also no clarity on how the manufacturers will decide the supply quotas for various States. The absence of any guidelines in this regard would mean passing control over to private vaccine producers. As a result, only commercial considerations might prevail and the States might be put at a disadvantageous position.
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