Govt Must Open COVID Vaccine Distribution Plan to Scrutiny: Expert

Does India have a vaccine distribution plan? Why have the details not been shared yet?

4 min read
Does India have a vaccine distribution plan? 

COVID-19 vaccine updates are creating all the buzz right now. There’s been a stream of positive trial results proving the efficacy of several big-name COVID vaccines like the Oxford vaccine or Pfizer vaccine. But all this begs a bigger question:

Does India have a vaccine distribution plan?

FIT speaks to Dr Amir Ullah Khan, economist at MCRHRDI of the Government of Telegana, and former senior advisor for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to find out.

“Firstly, it’s important to know who will pay for this. I think the central government needs to give this vaccine free to everyone.”
Dr Amir Ullah Khan

Dr Khan adds that the covid distribution plan must be decentralised, and each state or better yet, each district should decide who to prioritise. “The district would know if ASHA workers need it, if people hospitalised and with co-morbidities need it more and would be able to best judge the order of priority.”

“We cannot make exact cost estimates till we know the nature of the vaccine and its exact requirements, but yes, it is going to cost a lot,” he added.

“We need to start planning now to avoid a situation like we were in during March where we were scrambling for PPEs and equipment. I fear we will anyway scramble by the pace at which we are going.”
Dr Amir Ullah Khan

Open the Distribution Plan Up for Scrutiny

As to why we don’t have enough information on a plan, Dr Khan says that governments need to be open with their data so that stakeholders can strengthen it. “We should be transparent and involve all parties, including the social sector that can give real, on-ground estimates and did so in the lockdown.”

When asked how we would reach every person in need, he answered we would have to rely on technology. “Although Arogya Setu did not work, we will have to rely on digital networks to reach everyone. There is a fear about security and exclusion, but hopefully, we will use technology to include people for the COVID vaccine.”

What We Know So Far of India's Vaccine Distribution Plan

The first batch of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Serum Institute of India (SII) is expected in India by January-end or early February, SII managing director Adar Poonawalla had said at HT Leadership Summit last week.

So far, there is nothing concrete from the government on the details of the plan apart from singular statements from ministers and stakeholders. We still need to know:

Will there be centralised distribution of the vaccines? Will each state have to negotiate amounts? How much will it cost? What exactly comes next? Do we have adequate supply chain systems in place? FIT explores what’s been said so far – and what we need to know.

India plans to immunise 200-250 million people – a sixth of its population – with 400-500 million COVID-19 vaccine shots by July 2021, Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan announced on 4 October.

The Centre is planning to procure COVID-19 vaccines directly from the drugmakers and distribute them among 30 crore priority beneficiaries under a special coronavirus immunisation programme

Vulnerable Population Groups:

Around one crore healthcare professionals including doctors, MBBS students, nurses and ASHA workers, around two crore frontline workers including municipal corporation workers, personnel of the police and armed forces; about 26 crore people aged above 50; and a special group of those below 50 years of age with co-morbidities and requiring specialised care.


How Much Will India Spend?

India has set aside about Rs 50,000 crore at an estimated Rs 500 per person to vaccinate the world’s second most populous nation, Bloomberg reported earlier this month.
Govt Must Open COVID Vaccine Distribution Plan to Scrutiny: Expert

The Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said on 11 November, “We are in a position to not only augment and strengthen but also add to our cold chain capabilities.”

As per estimates, India has more than 28,000 cold chain points, 700 plus refrigerator vans and more than 70,000 vaccinators to assist in vaccine administration. The Health Ministry had earlier told that these have been utilised under the universal immunisation programme and would aid in the administration of COVID vaccination as well.

In September, in order to alleviate concerns surrounding the fast-tracking of the vaccine, Vardhan also stated that he would be willing to receive the first dose of the vaccine. He added that the vaccine would first be made available to those who need it the most, irrespective of their paying capacity.

So there are many factors still to think about from costs, to beneficiaries to cold-chain requirements and more.

Where we have an advantage is two-fold:

  1. Indian companies already supply the bulk of vaccines to the world.
  2. We already conduct one of the world’s largest immunisation programmes for children and mothers called the Universal Immunisation Program (UIP).

Now the question remains: Can we leverage these networks for COVID vaccine distribution? And can we do this without affecting the vaccines for moms and children – who have already suffered and missed out on their shots in the pandemic?

(The article was first published on FIT.)

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