Correcting the vaccine course
In an address to the nation on Monday evening, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi declared that the Centre would take over the responsibility of procuring 75% of the vaccines (from the current 50%), and provide them free to the states for all those above the age of 18 (and thus relieve states of the responsibility of procuring and paying for vaccines) from June 21. The Centre and the states, he said, would together work out the guidelines. The Centre also imposed a ₹150 cap on the service charge on each dose that will apply to the remaining 25% of vaccines which can be sourced and distributed by the private sector. The new framework is a much-needed correction in the vaccine policy.
The PM’s announcement marks yet another dramatic shift in the country’s vaccine policy. Mr Modi said that the arrangement between January 16 to April 30 — which was based on a phased rollout for priority groups, with the Centre procuring vaccines — was altered from May 1 due to the demand of states and other stakeholders for greater decentralisation. He claimed that states then began understanding the complexities of the vaccination process and asked for a reversal to the older system, citing it as the basis for Monday’s shift. But the truth is more complex, for it involves the fundamental issue of inadequate supplies, although the PM did speak of how, going forward, more vaccines will be available in the country. India did set up an expert group on vaccines last April, but did not place any advance orders for vaccines, Indian or foreign. The resulting supply crunch, most evident in May, caused the Supreme Court to criticise the government for its “arbitrary and irrational” vaccine policy.
Still, the Centre has done the right thing now. Taking ownership of vaccine procurement, providing doses for free, while leaving distribution to states and allowing the private sector to continue to serve those willing to pay is a better model. The Union government should now approve more vaccines (provided they pass the science), strike deals with vaccine-makers whose offerings have been approved elsewhere, and build a stockpile for this year and next. All stakeholders must work towards a singular aim — universal vaccination. There are 940 million people over the age of 18 in India. Of these, 46.2 million had been fully vaccinated till June 6, and another 139 million had received one dose. The immediate objective should be to get these numbers up.