Rajat Sharma

Covid: India could have planned a better vaccination strategy by taking a cue from USA

akb fullIndia’s daily Covid-19 cases crossed the 4-lakh mark for the first time on Friday with 4,01,993 fresh cases and 3,523 deaths reported officially on a single day. Of course, there were nearly three lakh patients (2,99,988) who were discharged in the last 24 hours, but the scourge of the pandemic is spreading far and wide. Hospitals are running out of oxygen, ICU beds and ventilators.

Today I want to sound a note of caution. I would request all not to crowd Covid vaccination centres. Doctors have alerted that these centres are fast becoming spreaders of Coronavirus due to huge crowds. Crowding these centres may make you an easy prey for the deadly virus. My appeal: Please do not visit the vaccination centre unless you get an appointment on phone. Maintain safe distance as the virus can infect people standing in a crowd easily.

Due to shortage of vaccine stocks, vaccination for people above the age of 18 years is being done only in six states, that too, symbolically. Vaccines will be available free for 45-plus age group in government hospitals. The Centre has asked private hospitals to return the vaccine stocks to their respective state governments. Private hospitals want to purchase directly from manufacturers, but both the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech have expressed their inability to supply immediately, as they have promised to supply 50 per cent of their manufactured vaccines to the Centre and the remaining 50 per cent to the states. State governments have placed their orders separately.

I think there were some serious shortcomings at the planning stage, when the Centre announced it would launch nationwide vaccination drive for 18-plus age group from May 1. We should have learnt some lessons from the USA, where people who have already taken both the doses are now being allowed to move in small groups in public places. The US government’s aim is give both the doses to all its citizens by July 4 (US Independence Day) this year. As part of its plan, the US government first ordered Pfizer and Moderna to manufacture 10 crore doses at the beginning. It banned export of vaccines by these two manufacturers, and wanted all the stocks for its citizens. US authorities even clamped ban on export of raw materials used for manufacturing Covid vaccines.

The vaccination drive in the US was carried out in three phases – first, for 60-plus age group, second, for 45-plus age group, and third, for 18-plus age group. People came forward in large numbers to get themselves vaccinated. There were no legal hassles, and even illegal migrants staying in the US got vaccinated. The result is there for all to see:10 crore people have been fully vaccinated, which is close to 40 percent of US population. 65 percent of the vulnerable elderly population has also been fully vaccinated. There has been a huge drop in number of fresh cases and the number of deaths. The US government expects everything to return to normal by July this year.

Here, we should understand that India is not USA. We have 100 crore more people than the US. Even if we speed up vaccination on a war footing, it will take a long time to reach our objective. Till now, we have administered more than 16 crore doses. Number of dozes may sound big but it’s very small in terms of the percentage. Moreover, we may not be able to launch universal vaccination for all Indians above the age of 18 years soon. There’s not enough vaccine. Other problem is that as usual too many questions are being asked.

The Supreme Court, on Friday, posed a series of questions to the Centre as to why a national vaccination drive has not been launched, why the Centre is not purchasing all the vaccine stocks available to distribute among the people, why registration on CoWin app was necessary, as a vast majority of people have no access to internet, why there were different prices fixed for vaccines. The nation now awaits Covid vaccination guidelines from the Supreme Court.

When a senior Health Ministry official was asked why nationwide vaccination drive for 18-plus group was announced, when there was no availability of adequate stocks, the official (Luv Agarwal) replied that such glitches always occur in the beginning when a nationwide drive is launched. Moreover, it is a paid vaccination drive in phase 3, where people will have to pay for vaccines. He promised that the drive will pick up pace soon. Two things are now clear: all Indians above the age of 45 years will get free vaccines, while those between 18 and 45 years may have to pay for the vaccines.

In India, health services depend hugely on private sector. Hence private hospitals can play a major role in getting people vaccinated speedily. But they have no vaccines. Vaccine manufacturers have asked them to wait for 6 to 8 weeks, and import is not possible as manufacturers are saying they will deal only with the government entities. I think this needs a course correction. Vaccination at a much faster pace is the only option. And this may not be possible without active involvement of the private sector.

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