If the crippling shortage of vaccines couldn’t force the Centre to relook certain aspects of its vaccine strategy, the criticism by the Supreme Court on Monday should. To be sure, the apex court’s observations on ‘free vaccine for all’ and ending differential pricing of vaccines are debatable. As this newspaper has argued earlier, those who can pay should pay while the government defrays the entire cost for the economically vulnerable. Price-caps are a bad idea since these are a serious disincentive to all manner of private sector participation.
And private sector participation—from vaccine-makers to hospitals—is crucial since neither PSU vaccine-makers nor the public healthcare system in India has the capacity, respectively, to manufacture the quantum of vaccines India needs and administer these. That said, the Centre needs to pay heed to what the SC has said on central procurement.
The sharp observations of the court pose discomfiting questions for the Centre. At the time that the government was finalising the vaccine policy last year, its expert advisors had asked states not to go for separate procurement. In phase III of the vaccine policy, the responsibility of procuring vaccines for 18-45-year-olds has been left to the states, even as it is clear that most don’t have the wherewithal.
Against this backdrop, the SC did well to remind the Centre that India’s is a federal structure and individual states can’t be left in the lurch; it said the Centre should procure the vaccines and distribute it among the states. By Monday, only 12.2% of the population had received at least one shot, compared with 50% in the US and close to 60% in the UK. As such, it is hard to see how the Centre believes that the population eligible for vaccinations would be vaccinated by the end of the year unless procurement is streamlined, instead of, as the SC observed, the “spectacle” of municipal and state governments floating tenders.
The government may have talked of 2.16 billion doses between August and December, but this sounds optimistic; Serum Institute has said it can reach 100 million doses a month only by July while Bharat Biotech can do this only by September. And, production of Sputnik-V will take off only in August; 8 million doses of the vaccine from Russia and 20 million doses of AstraZeneca from the US, following India’s vaccine-diplomacy efforts, are important, but are a drop in the ocean.
Also, states’/municipal governments’ tenders notwithstanding, at least one leading vaccine-manufacturer has made it clear it will deal with the Centre alone. States, as per multiple newsreports, have either approached or are considering approaching the SC for a direction on centralised procurement. The Union government missed the bus on contracting large supplies, something that countries that have achieved significant vaccine penetration did, and incentivising vaccine research like the US. It immediately must correct course.