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India's COVID Vaccine Supply: Why Modi Government's Claims are Dubious

Centre has quoted varying figures for the availability of COVID-19 vaccine but even optimistic estimates fall short.

Published
Opinion
6 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>India aims to give COVID-19 vaccine to 94 crore adults by December-end.</p></div>
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Till 11 am on 26 July just 9.2 crore people had received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. There are 94 crore Indians aged 18 years or above. This means that only around 9.8% of the adult population has been fully vaccinated. Given that the vaccination drive has been going on for over six months now, and the fact that over 90% of Indians are yet to be fully vaccinated, this should be a reason for worry.

Around 84.8 crore adults still haven’t been fully vaccinated. The key problem behind the slow vaccination pace has been the erratic supply of vaccine doses. This is primarily because the Central government took its time to order the doses. Between January and July 16, a total of 41.5 crore doses of vaccines were supplied. Of this, 36 crore doses were supplied by the Serum Institute of India (SII), which manufactures Covishield, and 5.5 crore doses were supplied by Covaxin-maker Bharat Biotech. Further, 33 lakh doses of Sputnik V have been imported, taking the total supply to almost 42 crore doses.

Tall Claims on COVID-19 Vaccination

Given that this data is 11 days old, the total supply until now must have been more than 42 crore doses. The total number of doses given by 26 July stood at around 43 crore. Of this, 33.8 crore were first doses, and as mentioned earlier, 9.2 crore people had received both doses.

In the past, ministers in the Narendra Modi government have claimed that every Indian will be vaccinated against COVID-19 by 31 December 31 this year. Let us look at how believable this goal is.

Around 51 crore Indians haven’t received any dose. In order to fully vaccinate these individuals, 102 crore doses of the vaccine will be needed. Over and above this, there are 33.8 crore individuals who have received one dose. So, another 33.8 crore doses will be needed to vaccinate them fully. In total, 135.8 crore doses will be needed now to fully vaccinate all adults. There is bound to be some wastage as well. Taking that into account, let us say 140 crore doses will be required to fully vaccinate everyone. It should also be noted that the number for the adult Indian population, 94 crore, is a projection.

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Around 5.19 months are left in the year. This means that if every adult has to be vaccinated by December-end, 27 crore doses (140 crore doses divided by 5.19 months) should be available every month on average. The best that India has done to date was in the month of June, when almost 12 crore doses were given.

At the current pace, the total number of vaccinations in July is likely to cross the June peak and be over 13 crore doses. But what is needed in order to vaccinate every Indian before December 31 is 27 crore doses on an average every month.

The two main suppliers, the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, are together producing 13.5 crore doses a month, which is half of the requisite 27 crore doses a month. That’s nowhere near enough.

The question is whether the supply of vaccines will rise to 27 crore doses a month. In an answer to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha, the government said on July 20, “The current average monthly capacity of production of Covishield by M/s Serum Institute of India is 11 crore doses and of Covaxin by M/s Bharat Biotech International Limited is 2.5 crore doses.” This means that the two main suppliers are together producing 13.5 crore doses a month, which is half of the requisite 27 crore doses a month. That’s nowhere near enough.

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Government's Different Answers On The Same Day

In a reply to another question raised in the Rajya Sabha, the government said on 20 July that the estimated production quantity of Covishield was around 13 crore doses a month, and that of Covaxin was 1.75 crore doses a month. The estimated production of Sputnik V was 0.5 crore doses a month. This implies a monthly supply of 15.25 crore doses, which, though better than the last estimate, is nowhere near what is required.

The government, in another reply to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha, said on 20 July, “As communicated by manufacturers, the monthly vaccine production capacity of Covishield is planned to be increased from 11 crore doses per month to more than 12 crore doses per month and production capacity of Covaxin is planned to increase from 2.5 crore doses per month to 5.8 crore doses per month.”

Hence, according to this data, one cannot really be sure about the total monthly supply of doses. The government gave different answers to the same question on the same day. So, let’s work with the most optimistic data, which is 13 crore doses per month for Covishield, 5.8 crore doses per month for Covaxin, and 0.5 crore doses per month for Sputnik V. This works out to 19.3 crore doses per month, which is still nowhere near the required number of 27 crore doses per month on an average.

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On the same day, the government further said in Parliament, “The projected availability of vaccines from 1st August 2021 to 31st December 2021 is 135 crore doses.” This works out to a requirement of 27 crore doses per month on average. But as per the above calculations, even the best possible estimate for vaccine supply is 19.3 crore doses per month. So, how is the gap going to be filled?

For a large chunk of the adult population, the prospect of getting vaccinated by December-end depends on whether the players other than Covishield and Covaxin are able to supply vaccines as per the government’s expectations.

Can the COVID-19 Vaccine Suppliers Step Up?

In an affidavit filed with the Supreme Court in late June, the government said 135 crore vaccine doses will be available between August and December. Of this, 50 crore doses of Covishield, or 10 crore doses per month on an average, will be supplied by the SII, and Bharat Biotech will supply 40 crore doses of Covaxin or 8 crore doses per month on an average. This is yet another estimate different from the figures seen until now.

Further, of the 135 crore doses, the remaining 45 crore are then expected to come from other suppliers. This includes 30 crore doses of the Biological E Sub unit vaccine, 5 crore doses of the Zydus Cadila DNA vaccine, and 10 crore doses of Sputnik V.

Hence, for a large chunk of the adult population, the prospect of getting vaccinated by December-end depends on whether the players other than Covishield and Covaxin are able to supply vaccines as per the government’s expectations. The good thing here is that 30 crore doses of the Biological E jab, which is currently in phase III clinical trials, have been pre-ordered by the government.

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Government's Figures Are All Over the Place

Full vaccination also depends on the exact production capacity for Covishield and Covaxin. As per the affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, 10 crore doses of Covishield can be supplied per month. But according to an answer in the Lok Sabha, this number is 13 crore doses. A similar variation exists for Covaxin as well.

As per one answer in the Lok Sabha, 5.8 crore doses can be supplied per month. But in the affidavit submitted in the Supreme Court, that number is 8 crore doses. In an answer to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha, the government had said on July 20, “Efforts are expected to enhance the production of Covaxin from the present 1 crore per month to 10 crore per month in the coming months.”

Given all this, it is hardly surprising that in an answer to a question in the Lok Sabha, the government said: “The COVID-19 vaccination is an ongoing and dynamic process … In view of the dynamic and evolving nature of COVID-19 pandemic, no fixed timeline at present can be indicated for the completion of vaccination drive, however, it is expected that all beneficiaries aged 18 years and above will be vaccinated by December 2021.”

To conclude, it is reasonable to state that vaccination is a dynamic process given that new vaccines require approval. But it shouldn’t be rocket science for the government to estimate the exact monthly supply of the two main vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, on which much of the vaccination drive depends. Right now, the numbers are all over the place.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of Bad Money. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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