India’s COVID Vaccination Drive Needs Lord ‘VISHNU’ to Rescue It
VISHNU — ‘Vaccine Investment & Strategically Heightened Nirmaan Undertaking’ — could be exactly what India needs.
VISHNU, or Vaccine Investment & Strategically Heightened Nirmaan (Development) Undertaking, could be the invocation that shall bless and redeem India’s flailing COVID-19 inoculation drive.
I was stunned when union cabinet ministers hit back with characteristic aggression against people who were fearing a looming shortage of vaccines in India. Stunned, not by their angry language (par for the course), but by their numeric self-goal.
“What shortage?”, they thundered. “We’ve got 2.4 crore doses in storage and 1.9 crore in the pipeline”.
I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, that this stat was being trotted out to create confidence, to prove there is no shortage, when:
- All we could confirm is an assured, visible supply of 4.3 cr vaccines for a country that needs 150 cr doses in double quick time to become safe
- Somebody ought to have done his math homework, because 4.3 cr doses amount to less than 15 days of supply, since we are vaccinating at nearly 30 lakhs/day. As against this, we maintain 74 days of petroleum reserves, 18 months of food supplies, and our foreign exchange reserves could buy 13 months of imports.
- Now surely, the COVID vaccine is currently as critical as food/petrol/imports, right? Can you imagine the alarm bells that would ring on Raisina Hill if reserves of food/petrol/imports fell to less than 15 days? Then why is there a misplaced sense of over-confidence, nay complacency, about “back off you prophets of doom, we’ve got FIFTEEN days of vaccine supplies, get it?”
- Finally, top this up with the precarious fragility of our supply infrastructure. 90 percent of our vaccines are coming from ONE manufacturing facility in the virus-ravaged city of Pune. So, in addition to their math homework, has anybody in government, especially those boasting about “FIFTEEN days of supplies”, done their Lesson 101 in disaster scenarios and back-up planning? God forbid, but what if some ‘anhonee’ (unthinkable tragedy) were to strike and paralyse operations at this facility (not to create panic, but one of the buildings had caught fire several weeks back)? 90 percent of our supply line would go bust, since we’ve neither licensed nor permitted other capacities (as I write, we’ve given emergency use authorisation to Dr Reddy’s Laboratories for Sputnik V; good, but yet only a bucket of water to fill an ocean; and it’s not even clear how many doses will be exported and how many used locally).
‘Let’s Use This Crisis to Trigger a Seismic Change in Failed Policies’
However, in a perverse sort of way, I am glad this crisis has crossed our threshold of inertial governance. Remember June 1991? When our foreign exchange reserves had fallen well below USD 1 bn, merely enough to buy a scary, paltry three weeks of imports? India was on its knees, staring at a default, running out of oil, going dark, stalling critical manufacturing/infrastructure plants. Our status-quoist policy-makers were jolted into action. And what got scripted was an incipient free-market revolution in a hidebound economy.
Hopefully, this vaccine crisis is of similar proportions, and will trigger a seismic change in failed policies.
VISHNU, the Vaccine Plan That’s Blessed Ab Initio
Perhaps, Prime Minister Modi would like to consider VISHNU, that is, the Vaccine Investment & Strategically Heightened Nirmaan (Development) Undertaking. This plan has got substance and nomenclature. After all, which Hindu devotee has not invoked Lord Vishnu, and more frequently, his eighth incarnation, Lord Ram, who enjoys a fanatical following in India? So, this effort shall be blessed ab initio, guaranteed to succeed. What’s more, it’s got three (Lord Vishnu’s lucky number) components, encompassing the production, pricing, and distribution of vaccines.
Production of Vaccines: An ‘Open Regime’
- India should openly woo all globally-approved vaccines to be produced here (okay, let’s make a concession to nationalism, and keep the Chinese jabs out of this). Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), along with the already-approved Covishield, Covaxin, and Sputnik V, should be humming on our pharma shopfloors
- Wherever possible — certainly for Covaxin, which is our own, and J&J, whose single shot can reduce the vaccination effort by half — the Indian government should buy IPRs (intellectual property rights) for domestic producers, converting the license into a ‘public good’, that is, any authorised local manufacturer could ‘buy’ the production rights for ‘Re 1’ — and flood the local market with vials
- Finally, vaccine production should be given prime of place in the government’s ambitious PLI (production-linked incentive) Scheme worth Rs 9 lakh cr. After all, if we can give oodles of cash to television, telephone, and solar plant makers, why not put Rs 1 lakh cr out there for vaccine producers? Remember, Serum Institute is only asking for 3 percent — or Rs 3,000 cr — of this corpus, to double production to nearly 12 cr doses per month!
Dual Pricing for Public & Private Markets
- If India can allow dual pricing for the basic essentials of life, like food and water, why are we running shy of doing the same for the third life-saver today, the COVID-19 vaccine? Just as the poor buy rice for Rs 2/kg at fair price shops, and the rich get their caviar for Rs 2000/kg in Khan Market, why can’t we give free vaccines at public inoculation centres, and allow the rich to pay through their nose for their preferred brand at private facilities?
- Just as we tax the caviar to subsidise the rice, we should put a super-tax on freely importable vaccine doses, like J&J, administered at private hospitals
Two Distribution Channels in Sync With Dual Pricing
- For public hospitals (akin to fair price shops or free water supply), the government should commandeer supplies at negotiated rock-bottom rates, but allow the same vaccines to be sold at a reasonable profit margin through private hospitals and distributors, including retail and online chemists
- It’s a win-win-win for everybody. The government vaccinates the poor for free. The producers make a viable return on their investment. And paying consumers can exercise their choice to get the brand they prefer, jabbed at a place they like.
Believe me, Lord VISHNU, the Preserver, would be the happiest!
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