FPJ Edit: Onus on Centre to step up vaccination supplies

The second surge amidst the ongoing vaccination drive is a matter of huge concern. Even before there could be a return to the pre-Covid-19 normal, the country is again in the grip of a fresh spurt in infections. More than one lakh new cases were recorded in the last 24 hours alone till early Wednesday, spotlighting the renewed challenge the health authorities are up against. The virus seems to be under no one’s control. Lest you think that it is peculiar to India alone, do note that several European nations are in a much worse state. But that, of course, is no comfort. We have to wage our own battle against the biggest health crisis this century.

On Wednesday, with an eye on stepping up the vaccinations, the government allowed private centres to undertake group vaccinations from April 11. Firms employing about 100 people could arrange to have them vaccinated at their offices in coordination with the respective state health authorities. Admittedly, various state governments are demanding a much higher supply of vaccines than it may be possible to provide given the shortage, and the need to distribute nationwide the total number made available by the two manufacturers in the country.

To take a specific example, Maharashtra has most vociferously asked for a much larger number of vaccines, though of over a million supplied so far till Wednesday morning, it still had to use nearly one lakh. As the Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said, there was an element of finger-pointing in these demands being raised by non-BJP governments for speeding up the vaccination drive. In the national capital too, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is most vociferous in demanding a bigger share of vaccines. He also seeks to remove the age-bar on inoculations.

What politicians like Kejriwal fail to appreciate is that even in those countries which are fortunate to source the jabs from multiple makers, age continues to be a criterion in prioritising the recipients of inoculation. Besides, medical experts are of the opinion that it is only after about three weeks of the second jab that antibodies are formed to combat the virus. There are scores of cases where people who have had the first jab still got infected. In short, receiving a jab, single or double, is not a licence to behave recklessly. No. The onus to remain on guard 24x7 lies with every individual, certainly not with the health workers.

Having said that, we must also come to terms with the stark fact that despite the best efforts there is a huge shortage of vaccines globally, and not just in India. Indeed, we should count ourselves fortunate that one of our own pharmaceutical companies has developed the vaccines while the other is contracted to supply in huge numbers to a global pharmaceutical major. It is notable that after supplying over six crore vaccines to a number of less developed countries, including to our neighbours, as part of global vaccine diplomacy, the government was quick to ban their export, though informally, in order to meet the local demand.

On Wednesday, it emerged that the Pune-based Serum Institute of India has been served a legal notice by AstraZeneca for failing to supply the committed number of vaccines within the stipulated timespan. The unofficial ban on exports a few days ago has clearly jeopardised the SII’s commercial interests and opened it to severe penal action. Given that it is obliged to supply at bargain-basement prices to the government, its lament at huge commercial losses may not be out of place.

It is significant that the price of vaccine is the lowest in India while several developed nations pay five to six times what the government pays the two manufacturers. In fact, the two manufacturers virtually have no financial incentive in governmental supplies while the SII seeks to make money from committed exports to AstraZeneca. It has so far supplied ten crore vaccines to the government while the rest have been sourced from the Hyderabad-based company.

Under the circumstances, the government must consider importing the Russian vaccine after carrying out all necessary medical tests so that the vaccination drive can pick up momentum. We cannot risk going back to the days of full lockdowns.

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