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Dear PM, Where Are the Vaccines, Where Is the Victory Over COVID?

Where are India’s life-saving vaccines? Are we running out of vaccines because we botched up the maths?

Updated
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5 min read

Video Producer: Shohini Bose
Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia
Camera: Shiv Kumar Maurya

On 16 January 2021, while launching India’s COVID vaccination programme, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "These vaccines will give us a defining victory in the war against COVID." But today, more than four months later, 3 lakh Indians are dead – the last 1 lakh died in just 26 days.

And during this time, India’s vaccine programme didn’t grow, it collapsed. From a high of 43 lakh doses on 5 April to less than 7 lakh doses on 9 May.

Dear PM Modi, Where Is Our Victory Against COVID

So, where is the victory in the war on COVID? Four thousand deaths daily — does that show we have won or, in fact, lost badly? Why is our government now on the list of the worst managers of coronavirus? And, those vaccines that were to protect us, save our lives — where are they?

Promises and Reality: The Huge Gap

Yeh Jo India Hai Na… ab yahan jo kaha jaata hai, aur kiya jaata hai uss mein bahut antar aa gaya hai. There’s now a huge gap between what we say and what we do, and that has cost us thousands and thousands of lives. We have all lost friends, family members or colleagues. And yet, this habit of more talk and little action is not going away, especially, in the critical area of vaccine procurement — where already so many mistakes have been made.

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India’s Vaccine Drive Mess: The Chronology

Let’s return to Modi. Thoda chronology samajhne ke liye:

  • On 16 January, he said India’s two ‘made in India’ vaccines will give us victory against COVID
  • On 28 January, at the World Economic Forum’s online summit, Modi actually declared victory over COVID, adding that India had defied predictions by several experts that it would struggle against COVID
  • On 16 February, the PM went a step further, claiming that India’s fight against COVID was now inspiring the world
From promise of victory to victory declared to world inspiration, all in a month. Ab problem yeh hui ki we started believing our own big words! 

So much so, that:

  • On 3 February, we refused to give the Pfizer vaccine approval for emergency use in India
  • A few days later, Pfizer withdrew its application

On 3 February, Pfizer was knocking on our door, hamari vaccine le lo, and we said no!

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Government Said No to Pfizer Without Doing Simple Maths!

We said no without doing simple maths! And what was it?

That Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech — the makers of Covishield and COVAXIN did not have the capacity to produce enough vaccines for ALL of India to be vaccinated fast enough.

And so, as we got into April 2021, the Indian Government’s COVID success story started to fall apart. Each day, we set new world records in the number of new cases —going from 1 lakh, to 2 lakh, to 3 lakh, and way past 4 lakh cases a day! And sadly, deaths mounted too — going past 1,000 a day, to 2,000, 3,000, and 4,000 a day.

And the virus wasn’t doing all the killing in this second surge – it was SHORTAGES – of ICU beds, of oxygen, of doctors and nurses, of critical medicines.

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India’s Vaccine Shortage Reality: The Delay and Drama

And equally huge was the rising SHORTAGE of vaccines! State after state running out of vaccines, begging the Central government for vaccines, who had almost nothing to provide. Vaccination centers putting up notices saying vaccines are out of stock, vaccination for 18 to 44 age-group suspended.

As May ends, the pace of vaccination is less than half of what it was in early April.

When the Indian Government should be ramping up its vaccination drive, it is slowing down! Lakhs who could have, who should have, been vaccinated, were not, and this has cost the lives of thousands of Indians who would have fought COVID better, if ONLY they had been vaccinated.
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First Refusal, Then Nod to Pfizer: Only It Was Too Late...

Let's go back to the vaccine ki chronology:

After shutting our doors to Pfizer in February, on 13 April, as the government finally saw the maths – saw that India would fall far short of its vaccine needs, the government did a u-turn – saying that vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna that had been cleared by the US, EU, UK, and Japan, were now welcome in India.

But, do you know, seven weeks later, despite the big welcome sign, global firms like Pfizer and Moderna are yet to sign a deal to supply vaccines to India.

And also, during these seven weeks, did you see this pointless drama that took place between the Central and state governments over vaccines?

  • In late April, we heard the Centre was informally telling state governments to look for vaccines abroad on their own – float your own global tenders, solve your vaccine shortage on your own.
  • Desperate for vaccines, several states – UP, Maharashtra, Punjab, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka did that – floated global tenders, only to discover that big pharma companies, will only sell to a country’s Central government or tie up with a private Indian company.
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The Vaccine Drive Reality: Pfizer, Moderna Have No Vaccines To Sell to India

So why were so many weeks wasted in states floating global tenders? I’ll tell you, because right now, companies like Pfizer and Moderna no longer have vaccines to sell to India.

All their vaccines – 100s of millions of doses – were pre-booked back in 2020 by the US, by the European Union, by Japan, Korea, Canada, UK – while the Indian government booked ZERO, none.

So, the Central government knew that floating global tenders would be embarrassing as there would be no takers. So, let the state governments embarrass themselves. And so, more precious weeks went by, which should have been used to book vaccines for WHENEVER we can get them.

Already Moderna says it has no surplus vaccines to sell in 2021. Pfizer says it could supply 5 crore vaccine doses between July and October.
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As of late May, after over four-and-a-half months, India has had 20 crore vaccinations. To double-vaccinate our entire population, we need a massive 280 crore vaccine doses!

Yes, it’s a huge country. So, it’s a huge task. But, clearly, Yeh Jo India Hai Na… here, we have made our task harder by failing to plan, by failing to do simple maths, by believing our own inflated boasts about our vaccine readiness, by needlessly pitting state against state, and states and against the Centre. And, all of this, has not just lost us time. It has also cost us thousands of precious lives...

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

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