After Punjab, Delhi has been told by the US drug manufacturer Moderna that it will not be able to supply Covid vaccine to the state. It has also specifically told the two states that the company will only deal with the Central government. The Punjab government has earmarked Rs 1,000 crore to buy the vaccine from wherever it is available. It has written to several companies, including Pfizer, Sputnik V and Johnson & Johnsonm, and is now awaiting their response. If the state of demand and supply of vaccines is anything to go by, the response from the other companies cannot be any different. They all would like to have a long-term agreement with the Centre, rather than enter into piecemeal agreements with states.
More importantly, they also do not have the necessary capacity to meet the needs of a country like India, which has a population of 135 crore. As many as 10 states, including Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha, had chosen to float global tenders to import vaccines. If this does not amount to a knee-jerk reaction, what else is it?
The states do not seem to have reconciled themselves with a procedural problem either. So far, the drug controller has cleared only three vaccines and they are Sputnik V, which has been approved for emergency use, Covaxin and Covishield. So, even if a company agrees to sell its vaccine directly to a state, the drug controller will have to give their clearance. If individual states deal directly with the foreign companies, the chances of price varying from state to state cannot be ruled out. And if the variations are high, it will give rise to scandals which politicians are capable of fanning.
All this shows that the states concerned had not thought through their decision to import vaccines and inoculate all those in the 18-44 age group. All this while, the Centre has been persisting with its stand that it will supply vaccines free of cost only to the aged and frontline health workers. It wants the states to manage on its own the vaccination of the youth. These contradictory approaches are at the root of the problem.
It is indisputable that for the vaccination policy to succeed, at least 60-70 per cent of the eligible population should receive the necessary two jabs. At the rate at which vaccine is being made available to the states, free or for a price, this target will remain unattainable even by the end of December this year. What is needed urgently is an understanding between the Centre and the states on resolving this issue. The capacity for vaccine production in the country needs to be augmented, if necessary, by allowing all drug firms with vaccine manufacturing capability to manufacture the same.
Many of the foreign drug firms like Pfizer have their own manufacturing units in India, which could be licensed to manufacture their own vaccines, provided they had received approval in their home countries. India’s decision to supply Covaxin and Covishield to some countries to gain diplomatic brownie points was, in retrospect, foolhardy. This should be seen against the decision of some countries to order vaccines in large quantities, i.e., two or three times their requirement. These countries need to be persuaded against hoarding vaccine at the cost of people in India and other countries.
All this leaves one with the inescapable conclusion that the Central government alone can meet the challenge. First and foremost, it should declare vaccination as a Central policy, like vaccination against smallpox and polio in the past, to be implemented with the close cooperation of the states. Procurement and distribution of vaccines among the states should be its sole responsibility. When it has Rs 20,000 crore to splash on the Central Vista project, it can certainly find the wherewithal to buy and supply vaccine.
The Centre has enough data about the availability of vaccines and the requirement of the same to complete the vaccination of the targeted population within a particular period. The shortages can be met by entering into contracts with foreign drug firms like Moderna, in which case the price will be the same for all the states. In some states like Delhi, vaccination for the youth has been suspended for want of adequate supply of vaccines. Time is of the essence in the fight against coronavirus and the Centre can only ill-afford to remain stoic as the states press the panic button.