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Modi’s Vaccine U-Turn Doesn’t Answer Supreme Court’s COVID Quiz

Dear Central government, Yeh Jo India Hai Na... it is getting exhausted from just asking questions. We need answers.

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5 min read

Video Producer: Shohini Bose
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
Camera: Athar Rather

The Prime Minister on Monday, 7 June, after weeks of policy paralysis, announced a big U-turn in the country's vaccination procurement policy. Unfortunately, this U-turn comes only at a time when the deadly second COVID surge is subsiding and after many thousands of deaths.

Health experts, the Supreme Court, and lakhs struggling to get vaccinated, questioned the Centre's vaccine plans week after week, and got no answers. The PM took great pains to blame the states for this delayed announcement

The central government is taking back control of the vaccination drive, which will be implemented in the next two weeks. The government will give free vaccines to states for all above 18 years of age, from 21 June. States started seeing the problems in procuring vaccines themselves. They started gauging how difficult it is to go about the processes.
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister

Why PM Modi's U-turn Now?

But, the real reason for this late U-turn is simply this: there were just NOT enough vaccines to procure and distribute. Yeh Jo India Hai Na... it is glad that we’re now back on track. But let’s accept that it has been a costly delay and it has cost us the lives of many fellow Indians.

To understand this better, let's first look at these three headlines:

  1. Home Minister Amit Shah says we controlled COVID's second wave in a very short time.
  2. Between 4 April and 5 June, India had over 1.8 lakh COVID deaths.
  3. Centre to pay Rs 1,500 crore advance to Biological-E for 30 crore doses of a new vaccine they are developing.

More than half of India's COVID deaths took place in the last two months but the Home Minister calls it a success story.

Those desperate SOS messages for oxygen, the desperate searches for ambulances, people in queues outside hospitals for a bed with relatives gasping for life – was that how the govt ‘controlled’ the second wave?
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The SOS Messages, Pleas for Oxygen, COVID Deaths – a 'Success' Story?

Those pleas for oxygen from hospitals across India, which could not be addressed, those headlines we saw of lives lost each night as oxygen simply ran out at hospital after hospital – was that evidence of a government in 'control' or 'failing to control'?

It was ironic that the Home Minister chose to pat himself on the back at the inauguration of nine oxygen plants in Gujarat. If we had seen these nine oxygen plants and many more across India inaugurated nine months ago, the government may have actually had something to congratulate itself about today.
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Pre-booking Vaccines in 2020 Would Be a Success Story

This brings me to the third headline – the Centre paying Rs 1,500 crore to pre-book 30 crore doses of Corbevax – a vaccine being developed by pharma company Biological-E. Kaash! Kaash hum time ko roll back kar paate aur kaash hamari sarkaar ne isi tarah vaccine ki pre-booking 2020 mein ki hoti.

This headline is a quiet admission by the government of a costly mistake – doing almost nothing to increase India's vaccine production capacity in all of 2020.

How India Should Have Taken a Cue From the US

The US government gave advances of USD 6 billion to multiple pharma companies last year, achieving two goals –

  1. They pre-booked hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.
  2. These billions of dollars allowed these pharma companies to start increasing their production capacity last year itself.

And, as is now well known, the Indian government did none of this last year. What we don’t know, is why.

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Take COVAXIN for instance, produced by Bharat Biotech. Out of the first 20 crore vaccine doses in India, 18 crore was Covishield, only 2 crore doses were COVAXIN.

Why? Because Bharat Biotech does NOT have the production capacity. But, this was known last year. So, 12 months ago, why didn’t the Indian government do what the US did? Why wasn’t Bharat Biotech given a big advance payment last year itself to massively increase their capacity? We don’t know. In fact, the government finally gave Bharat Biotech an advance of Rs 1,500 crores ONLY in April 2021.

13 PSUs Made to Sit Idle – A 'Success' Story?

And here's another big point. Between the central and state governments, India has 13 public sector pharma units, which, with some upgrades, could produce crores of vaccines. BUT, for a whole year, these PSUs had been allowed to sit idle.

It is ONLY now, that the government has decided to use three of these PSUs to produce COVAXIN. One of these PSUs is Haffkine Pharma, based in Mumbai.

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Haffkine's Managing Director said they will supply 22 crore vaccines annually once their bio-safety lab for the production of COVAXIN is ready. But how long will this bio-safety lab take? Eight months.

Had the decision been taken 12 months ago, Haffkine would have started producing COVAXIN four months ago. So again, we ask, why is this being done a year late? We don’t know.

Supreme Court's Crucial Questions to Central Govt, Unanswered...

And it's not just our questions that are going unanswered by the Government of India. Even the Supreme Court has struggled to get satisfactory answers from the government about crucial questions related to India's vaccine policy –

  1. Why dual pricing of vaccines? No clear answer.
  2. Doesn't dual pricing and unequal access to the vaccine go against Article 14 of the Constitution, against the Right to Equality? No clear answer. Yes, the PM has dealt with this question today, but as we have shown, it has come after many lives have been lost.
  3. Why is the government rigid on registration for vaccination via COWIN App? No clear answer.
  4. When there is a clear digital divide between rural and urban India, can we totally rely on a digital portal to ensure universal vaccination? No clear answer.
  5. The central government says all Indian adults will be vaccinated by December 2021.But beyond assurances, where is the specific plan to achieve this? No clear answer.
  6. The central Budget for 2021-22 earmarked Rs 35,000 crores for procuring vaccines. How has this money been spent so far and why can't some of this pay for vaccinating Indians between 18-44 years? No clear answer.
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Health is a State Subject But Not During a Raging Pandemic

And, before any minister again says, “Health is a state subject,” let's understand that on 31 May, the Supreme Court settled that issue and clearly said –

Modi’s Vaccine U-Turn Doesn’t Answer Supreme Court’s COVID Quiz

(Illustration: Purnendu Pritam)

So, dear central government, Yeh Jo India Hai Na... it is getting exhausted from just asking questions. We need answers.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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