Govt pushes back on Covid-19 vaccine plan criticism
The government is in talks with Pfizer and is considering its demand for an indemnity from any adverse effects if its vaccine is rolled out in India, a top official said on Thursday as the government defended India’s vaccine procurement policy by separately releasing a document rebutting criticism that has poured in recently.
In what it labelled as “myths”, the government said in a statement that it is “engaged continuously” with major vaccine manufacturers since mid-2020, but the companies had “their own priorities, game-plans and compulsions in allocating finite stocks”.
“Multiple rounds of discussions have happened with Pfizer, J&J & Moderna. Government offered all assistance to have them supply and /or manufacture their vaccines in India. However, it is not that their vaccines are available in free supply. We need to understand that buying vaccines internationally is not similar to buying ‘off the shelf’ items,” said the Myths and Facts on India’s Vaccination Process document shared by the Press Information Bureau and re-shared by multiple ministers.
The document, however, does not address the main criticism experts have made: India did not make any advance purchase orders – also known as advance marketing commitments (AMC) with any of the vaccine makers, including domestic manufacturers, till shortly before the roll-out.
Later, at the government’s routine briefing on Covid-19, Niti Aayog member (health) Dr VK Paul confirmed that India was now in talks with Pfizer. “Yes, we are in talks with Pfizer, since they indicated they have certain amount of vaccines available in the coming months — possibly starting in July. We are looking at what their expectations from the government are and they are looking at what our expectations are,” he said.
“They have requested indemnity from all the nations, including the country of origin, US. We are examining this request and we will take decision in the larger interest of people and on merits. It’s under discussion but there is no decision as of now,” he added.
The government, in the document it released, also pointed to its decision to accelerate approvals for vaccines cleared by World Health Organization and regulatory agencies in the West and Japan to refute the “myth” that it had not approved vaccines available globally.
In a subsequent point, it denied that it was not doing enough to improve vaccine production in the country: “The central government is playing the role of an effective facilitator to enable more companies to produce vaccines from the early 2020... Covaxin production by Bharat Biotech is being increased from under 1 crore (10 million) per month to 10 crore (100 million) per month by October. Additionally, three PSUs will together aim to produce up to 4cr (40 million) doses by December. With constant encouragement of the Government, Serum Institute is ramping up Covishield production of 6.5 crore (65 million) doses per month to 11 crore (110 million) doses per month.”
The three public sector units are Maharashtra’s Haffkine Biopharmaceuticals, Indian Immunulogicals and Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Ltd. The Union government also said that compulsory licensing, a suggestion pushed by several opposition leaders, would not help since making requires “active partnership, training of human resources, sourcing of raw materials and highest levels of bio-safety labs”.
The government also deflected criticism that it was not doing enough to vaccinate children by saying: “As of now, no country in the world is giving vaccines to children.” As users on social media pointed out that the US and Canada have begun vaccinating some groups of children, the PIB statement was amended to say: “It should read ‘no country in the world is giving vaccines to children under 12 years’”.
According to the government’s own disclosure, the first orders were placed in the second week of January, when India committed to purchase 60 million doses from Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. A second purchase order, for 100 million doses from the two manufacturers, was placed on March 12 and the latest, for 160 million doses, was placed on April 28 for supplies through July.
The only AMCs that could have helped India were by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which struck a deal with Serum Institute of India for 200 million doses (of which 100 million were for India) and the World Health Organization led Covax Facility for supply of doses to 92 low and middle income countries, including India. India received 10 million doses under the Covax arrangement by April.
A third deal that was for distribution in India, which will begin to translate into doses administered from this month, was struck by Dr Reddy’s to sell 100 million doses of Sputnik V in India. Latest reports indicate that Apollo Hospitals is among the first purchaser of these doses.
In contrast, according to a report shared by science analytics company Airfinity on January 8, the US and European Union had secured commitments for close to 5 billion doses from various manufacturers, with Brazil (593 million), UK (507 million) and Latin American nations excluding Brazil (507 million) being the other key nations or groupings that secured large vaccine commitments by early 2021.
The remainder of the document was a rebuttal to accusations that the Centre had left the states to fend for themselves on procuring vaccines – it cited the 45-plus free vaccination programme – and on not providing adequate supplies to states, to which it said that the allotment policy was transparent.
“The behaviour of some of our leaders, who in spite of full knowledge of the facts on vaccine supply, appear on TV daily and create panic among the people is very unfortunate. This is not the time to play politics,” it said.
Experts said India lost crucial time in procuring doses. “The amount of time India spent on deciding the priority population groups to be vaccinated, (and then suddenly opening it up for everyone), the same amount of time should have been given to supply procurement. How will supply be assured, since lack of enough attention there has created chaos,” said Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, vaccine and public health expert.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, was the latest chief minister to raise concerns over vaccine procurement, when he asked the Union government on Wednesday “why is the country not buying vaccines”. Previously, Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Maharashtra’s Uddhav Thackeray and Jharkhand’s Hemant Soren have questioned the policy.