Time is running out for the Centre to salvage its poorly-formulated vaccination policy that has been patchy and ineffective, resulting in a huge shortage of Covid-19 vaccines and also inequity in distribution. The Supreme Court has rightly flagged several issues concerning the inoculation strategy — differential pricing, lopsided procurement policy, lack of clarity on budgetary spending on vaccines and digital divide leading to vaccine inequity. While dubbing the vaccination policy as arbitrary and irrational, the apex court has asked the Centre to review the policy to address the concerns of various stakeholders. Ideally, the entire procurement process should have been centralised and vaccines should be given free of cost to all age groups. The Centre should consider utilising its position as the monopolistic buyer in the market and pass down the benefit to all people. Under the present policy, the State governments are forced to pay more for the vaccines. There appears to be no justification in the Centre’s argument that allowing the States and private hospitals to procure 50% of the vaccine doses at a pre-fixed price will spur competition and attract more private manufacturers to eventually drive down prices. With Rs 35,000 crore earmarked for vaccines in the 2021-22 Union Budget, one wonders why these funds cannot be utilised for vaccinating those in the 18-44 age group free of cost. Mandatory digital registration and booking of appointments on the CoWIN portal, coupled with the scarcity of vaccines, will lead to denial of access to the underprivileged sections.
The need for increasing vaccination coverage has acquired a sense of urgency, with experts warning of an imminent third wave of Covid that could be as severe as the ongoing second and could last longer. India should explore all options to speed up the inoculation drive and go for an advanced procurement strategy like that adopted by developed nations. The decision of the Drugs Controller General of India to do away with the requirement of India-specific trials for foreign vaccines is a welcome first move that will pave the way for the import of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The two American pharma majors were among the companies that had requested the government for waivers like indemnity and for post-approval local trials. The government should not drag its feet on granting necessary approvals, given the urgent need to meet the domestic demand. The Centre has pledged to vaccinate all of India by December, which would need a massive increase in the number of shots. Foreign vaccines are expected to play a big part in it. At present, vaccinations have slowed down in many States because of a shortage of doses. Currently, Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik V have been approved for use in India.
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