Centre’s course correction on vaccines couldn’t have come a day too soon. Steps must now be taken to increase supply.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-needed course correction in India’s anti-Covid inoculation drive couldn’t have come a day too soon. Monday’s announcement — the Centre will now procure 75 per cent of the vaccines for all age groups and these will be administered free — reverses the policy that required states to procure vaccines for the 18-44 age group. The policy came into effect on May 1, when the virus was at its punishing worst and some states had demanded a say in procurement. The Centre played along — wrongly so. It was aware that stocks were limited and ramp-up would take time and yet it expanded coverage and opened it to the market. As this newspaper repeatedly pointed out, this bizarre policy threw a spanner in the works of the vaccination drive by forcing states to compete against each other for an increasingly scarce public good. At least 12 states and two municipal corporations floated global tenders for vaccines, with, predictably, little success. Shortage forced several states to suspend vaccination for the younger age group and chief ministers cutting across party lines urged the Centre to rethink its policy, which the Supreme Court described as “arbitrary” and “irrational”. The Centre has done well to pay heed to the criticism and concerns.
A total of over 23 crore doses have been administered so far, 32 lakh of them yesterday — impressive numbers, but given the scale of the challenge, the task is cut out. The toll taken by the second wave has accentuated its urgency. In the last three weeks, the government has shown a belated acknowledgement of this concern and indicated that more than 2 billion vaccines, enough to vaccinate the entire adult population, will be available by the end of 2021. But this will require a massive ramping up of production capacities. The government seems alive to this imperative and has tweaked its terms of engagement with vaccine manufacturers. Last week, it announced an advance payment of Rs 1,500-crore to the Hyderabad-based Biological-E to reserve 30 crore doses of its Covid vaccine — the first time that the Centre has placed an order with a vaccine manufacturer before the product has received an emergency-use authorisation from the regulator. Much more needs to be done to meet the government’s stated objective — the pace of vaccination needs to be scaled up by nearly four times.
The changes in the Centre’s approach that have come to the fore in PM Modi’s announcement owe much, arguably, to the public scrutiny and questioning amid the second wave, especially by the Supreme Court which raised question marks on pricing and procurement — the two aspects tweaked on Monday. The second wave is falling but the last two months have shown that dropping the ball has a devastating cost. Now that the vaccine procurement ball is back in the Centre’s court — where it should be — constant vigilance by all stakeholders is required. No one can afford any more fumbling in the vaccination drive, it’s a matter of life and death.
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