Opening up inoculation drive to all age groups and allowing the vaccine manufacturers to sell half of their monthly supplies directly to the State governments and in the open market at a predetermined price are welcome moves, though belated. The Centre appears to have finally woken up to the gravity of the situation in the wake of unprecedented havoc being created by the second wave of Covid-19 and growing public frustration over shortage of vaccines, hospital beds, oxygen and emergency medicines. India’s vaccination programme is running massively short of doses as it is dependent on just two vaccines —Covishield and Covaxin. The third approved vaccine — Sputnik-V — will initially be imported by Dr Reddy’s Laboratories from Russia this month, with production expected to commence only next month. The foreign vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, approved by the government last week, already have supply commitments to other countries. While Pfizer may insist on an indemnity clause to protect itself from any legal action in case its vaccine causes any adverse reaction, Moderna is reportedly not keen on entering the Indian market, leaving only J&J, which is currently in talks with the Indian authorities. The big challenge before the government now is to ramp up production at warp speed. So far, the NDA government’s vaccination strategy has been flawed and sketchy, lacking in foresight and planning. The command-and-control structure has let the people down and it is time to let markets and the private sector play a larger role.
The government must, at least now, move away from the highly-centralised system in which it is the sole authorised buyer of vaccines, fixing the price and placing all orders. It should have placed orders for vaccines sufficiently in advance, including advance orders from companies producing new authorised vaccines. Other countries were doing it, but India chose to be complacent, apparently influenced by the declining number of cases a couple of months ago. The health ministry bureaucrats should have recognised that private sector producers cannot be expected to subsidise vaccine supply. They have to be offered a reasonable price to expand their production capacities. With daily cases now exceeding 2.60 lakh, the Covid-19 crisis is clearly spiralling out of control. Increasing the production of vaccines, ramping up healthcare facilities and supplies, stopping super-spreader events such as election rallies and large religious gatherings, promoting masking, social distance and hygiene and introducing selective restrictions are among the urgent tasks before the government. Vaccinating 70% of the country’s population by the end of 2021 will require covering at least 680 million people; 480 million of them possibly through the free vaccination programme, while the needs of the remaining could be met through the market.