Arm-Twisting Vaccine Companies Won’t Get Things Done: Ajay Shah

COVID vaccines have extremely complicated manufacturing processes, making production difficult, Shah says.

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In an interview with The Quint’s Sanjay Pugalia, economist Ajay Shah sheds light on government policies that resulted in the shortage of COVID vaccines and tells how and when can the vaccine supply be made widely available in India. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Response on the first global tenders was not promising. Should vaccine procurement be centralised and delivery be decentralised?

Centralisation is a big challenge for the government machinery. India has always faced a problem in government contacting and procurement. The government struggles to buy fighter jets, submarines, warm clothes for soldiers in Ladakh, among other things. The Government of India finds it difficult to do such simple things. Centralising vaccine procurement is a risky thing – that is what was tried. The Centre tried to ban import of vaccines, and it tried to ban anybody from buying vaccines. We saw that didn’t work too well. So, it is always better, as a country, to have thousand points of energy rather than one.

We are in an abnormal war-like situation and a sovereign government can facilitate bulk procurement of vaccines. So, has the government shirked from its responsibilities because the problem is now too deep and catastrophic?

We should not think about shirking responsibilities. We should worry about getting things done. Imagine, if we were having this discussion in the late 2020, what would we have said: Case 1 – The Centre will make all the procurement, and it will ban the state governments and private people from doing it on their own.

Or, Case 2 – Anybody and everybody in India are welcome to carry out vaccinations  with some inoculations being handled by the Union government. However, we should not put all our eggs in one basket. We are India, who has low-state capability. We are not Israel or the UK or the US. The governments of these countries did amazing work and vaccinated a large portion of their population, but that’s not who we are. Let us understand that, in India, the state capability is low.

Will giving licenses to other pharma companies help in ramping up the vaccine production?

COVID vaccines have extremely complicated manufacturing processes. So, it is not easy to ramp up vaccine manufacturing in India. Frankly, nothing much is going to come out of the waiver of patents on COVID vaccines because it is a sophisticated and intricate process, and not a whole lot will happen in the short term. I think, for the next six months, the major story is going to be imports. We should do all we can with the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech.

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