Rajat Sharma

Free vaccination for all is welcome, but do we have enough stocks?

aaj ki baatPrime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on Monday to procure and distribute free Covid vaccines to all state governments has been welcomed by almost all the chief ministers. Modi has announced free vaccines to all Indians above the age of 18 years and this will come into effect from June 21. Private hospitals shall have access to 25 per cent vaccine doses and they can collect a maximum service charge of Rs 150 per dose.

While the PM’s announcement has been welcomed by all, the question arises as to how Centre would procure all the vaccine doses and by what time? There is also the issue of vaccine hesitancy among a large section of population due to prevailing baseless rumours above Covid vaccines. Till now, more than 23 crore doses have been administered across India.

Modi was right when he said in his address to the nation that questions were raised several months ago about Centre holding all the reins of procurement and distribution of vaccines. He pointed out that the Centre had launched a free vaccination drive for people above 45 years from January 16, but this was changed only because several of the states said they wanted to procure vaccines themselves. Several state governments also raised questions why all adults above 18 were not being made eligible for vaccination.

“States demanded vaccine decentralization. Now they have started to realize the difficulty involved in this work. State governments will now be informed about the number of vaccine doses they will get a week before they are sent. There must not be differences or debates over the issue of vaccines”, the Prime Minister said.

It is true leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal had at that time demanded that vaccine procurement be decentralized and states should be given powers to procure them from inside India or outside because health is a state subject under the Constitution. When state governments were asked to procure at least 25 per cent doses, they understood the difficulties involved and then switched their stands to say that the Centre should centralize procurement.

Let me explain it in details. On April 9, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi wrote a letter to PM Modi insisting that state governments should be given powers to procure Covid vaccines. But after a month Rahul tweeted ‘vaccine purchase should be centralised’. Several opposition leaders led by Congress leader Anand Sharma raised the issue of federalism, but on May 10, Congress president Sonia Gandhi told a meeting of opposition parties that the Centre was running away from its responsibility by putting the onus of vaccine procurement on state governments. On February 24, when West Bengal was in the thick of an election battle, chief minister Mamata Banerjee wrote a letter to the PM requesting him to allow states to buy Covid vaccines from their own funds. After winning the elections in May, Mamata switched her stand and said the Centre must procure vaccines and distribute them free to the states.

Similarly, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said in March this year that the entire vaccination process should be decentralized and if this was done, his government would inoculate the entire population of Delhi. But after the second wave of pandemic lashed the capital in April, Kejriwal changed his stand in May and said that the Centre should procure Covid vaccines and distribute them to the states.

It is clear that chief ministers and opposition leaders first demanded that vaccination drive should be decentralized but later changed made a U-turn and are now blaming PM Modi for the slowing down of vaccination drive.

Let me put it bluntly. From January onwards, when the vaccination drive was on at full throttle, opposition leaders and chief ministers apprehended that the entire credit for the drive would be cornered by Narendra Modi. Out of sheer bravado, some state governments started claiming that they would float e-tenders, buy Covid vaccines and inoculate their population. But when vaccine manufacturers and suppliers told them in plain language that they would deal only with the Centre, these states climbed down from their stand and agreed to the Centre taking up the responsibility of procurement and distribution of vaccines.

The Congress has still not learnt a lesson. On Monday, hours after the PM’s address to the nation, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala asked why the Centre was constantly changing its vaccine policy. Probably, Surjewala may have not read Punjab CM Capt. Amrinder Singh’s tweet in which he wrote: “Thank PM @narendramodi Ji for acceding to our request for central procurement and distribution of vaccines for all age-groups. I had written twice to @narendramodi Ji on this issue and to @drharshvardhan Ji suggesting this as the only feasible solution to Covid vaccine crisis.”

Right from Day One there had been attempts by politicians to create confusion and suspicions in the mind of people on the issue of Covid vaccines. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav described it as “BJP vaccine” and vowed not to get himself inoculated. But today he changed his stand saying that it’s a government vaccine and he is going to take it. I remember some politicians complained that there were no proper trials of the vaccine doses.But now they are saying our vaccines are effective. But their stand against vaccine has done the damage. There are many cases where people have refused to get vaccinated due to rumours.

The biggest plus point is that most of the doctors and health workers had got themselves vaccinated in the first phase of the drive. Now that the Prime Minister has promised to give free vaccines to all Indians above the age of 18, the question arises: Can we have enough doses in time? I have a few details to share.

Serum Institute of India, which makes Covishield vaccine, has said it will supply 6.5 crore doses in June and it may go up to 7 crore in July. From September till December, SII will manufacture 11.5 crore doses every month. Bharat Biotech, which makes Covaxin, has said it will make 2.5 crore doses in June, will triple the production in July, and till September, it will make 7.5 crore doses every month. From October, it will manufacture 10 crore doses every month. By that time, three more factories will start making vaccine doses. Seven pharma companies will manufacture Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses. Six companies including Zydus Cadilla and Biological E will start vaccine production in India from September. Their vaccines in different stages of approval at this moment.

Overall, India will have 10 crore doses in June, 17 crore in July and 20 crore doses in August. From September onwards, more than 42 crore doses will be available every month. In December, more than 54 crore doses will be available. If all goes well, by December, we will be having 216 crore doses in all, which is enough to vaccinate all Indians.

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