Four questions on the vaccine strategy
The one thing journalists are good at is asking questions. We’re naturally curious, even inquisitive. We rarely accept at face value what is said to us. If it’s from someone in authority, we usually distrust it. Our inclination is to dig below the surface because we suspect the truth is hidden from view. This can make us pesky and awkward. At times, even bolshie and obstreperous.
Well, I think it’s time to ask a few questions about the government’s vaccination strategy. But I’ll do it fairly. I’ll simply pose the questions that need to be answered. While we wait for the government’s response — if there is one — you judge if the questions raise deep and disturbing concerns. In other words, I’ll leave you to come to whatever conclusion you want.
The first question is the most important. It has two parts. Given that as far back as May or June last year, when Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca were working on a two-dose vaccine, we knew that if 75% of the Indian population was to be fully vaccinated, we would need two billion doses. Given that we also knew our total nationwide vaccine-producing capacity could not deliver two billion doses in the required time frame, wasn’t it obvious the government needed to take immediate steps to ramp up our production capacity? This isn’t based on rocket science. Just simple maths.
So what did the government do? Sums of ₹10 crore were made available to the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech to help with vaccine trials but, as far as I can tell, nothing was done to boost production capacity. If I’m right, was this explicable and understandable? Or utterly irresponsible?
The consequence is today, when the government wants to vaccinate at five million doses a day but public health experts are recommending 10, we produce under 2.5 million.
Let me come to a second key question. As far back as May or June, Serum Institute decided to risk its own money and produce and stockpile AstraZeneca (Covishield) in the hope it would be successful. The United States, United Kingdom and the European Union placed firm orders and also paid for them. All of this was before the vaccine was approved and licensed.
The intention was to guarantee an assured supply. Did the Indian government take a similar step? If not, why not? Did it not believe this was wise and necessary? Or did it not think of it?
The argument that India doesn’t have the money simply doesn’t wash. A sum of ₹35,000 crore was set aside in the budget for vaccination. Why wasn’t it used?
Furthermore, Serum Institute is an Indian company. Placing confirmed advance orders and paying for them would have helped boost its capacity. This was, therefore, atmanirbhar to boot.
Time for a third question. At the end of 2020, the government reached an agreement with Serum Institute to buy 100 million doses at ₹200 each. That’s one of the lowest prices in the world. But in January, when it placed a firm order, it was for only 11 million doses. Why? I’m told thereafter the government acquired additional amounts in similar lots of 10 or 20 million.
Again, why? Our purchase strategy should have been designed to help our vaccine producers. Doesn’t this feel like tactical game-playing?
Finally, my last question. Nearly three weeks ago, Serum asked for ₹3,000 crore to boost its manufacturing capacity. By now, the government knew India was short of vaccines whilst the second surge was escalating exponentially, yet it took two weeks to respond. Why? In a crisis, speed is critical but the government thought time was on its side. Its explanation — we had to find a way of paying. It did so at the speed of business-as-usual.
I’ll stop at this point. It’s now for you to decide if these questions raise disturbing issues and are worth asking. We may differ in our answers but the ones that matter will come from the government. But when?
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal