Even as the vaccine drive for those above 18 years kicked off on Saturday, amid complaints by several states they were short of vaccines, a spreadsheet detailing the quantities that would be available over the next six months is still missing. It was a slow start with the Union health ministry saying on Friday only some states would be initiating the third phase of the rollout. Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray announced the state would start inoculating those in the 18-44 years age bracket, adding it would be a phased process due to the shortage of vaccines.
To be sure, the process will be streamlined over the coming weeks, but clarity on the supply pipeline would be helpful given the pace of the vaccinations has fallen sharply when it should be accelerating to fight the ferocity of the infection in the second wave. Going by the current availability scenario, based on the capacity guidance issued by the manufacturers, experts believe that at best about 50% of the population can be inoculated by the end of 2021, in the best-case scenario. This is worrying and probably inadequate to contain the spread of the infection and future ‘surges’.
As Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the Biden administration, pointed out in his interview to The Indian Express we need to contract more supplies and do it quickly. While India has negotiated supplies with Russia’s RDIF for Sputnik V—the first batch of 1.5 lakh doses arrived on Saturday—it must explore all other options. The government had recently eased the rules on bridging trials for foreign vaccine-makers like Pfizer or a Johnson & Johnson, but there has been no update how talks with these companies are progressing.
More purchase commitments needed to have been made earlier, but the government can still work to clinch supplies from the next lot—including those from CureVac, Inovio, Sanofi-Pasteur and the Clover Biopharma- GSK Dynavax combine. Waiting for local producers to ramp up capacity would not be advisable given the frightening intensity of the second wave and the pressure on the healthcare facilities and the medical fraternity. Even if it more expensive to import—significantly more—this is not the time to haggle.
This is a national crisis and a critical minimum number of people must be inoculated in the next three months by end July. If the budget allocation of Rs 35,000 crore falls short, it needs to be topped up. Several vaccines are in the works including Zydus Cadilla’s ZYCovD and Biological E’s Covid-19 vaccine BECOV2 and should local manufacturers seek financial support they should receive it. Citizens are entitled to a calendar for the supply pipeline, with regular updates which would give them confidence; many of those between 18-44 who wanted slots were unable to get one over the weekend.
Importantly, states should be financially supported—at least bridge funding to begin with—so that they have adequate resources to fund their purchases of vaccines. Ideally, the Centre should have procured these and distributed them to the states; that way, the disputes on the differential pricing could have been avoided. Also, the distribution of vaccines would perhaps have been more equitable with ‘stronger’ states not running away with the available supplies, thanks to their ability to negotiate with manufacturers. In fact, it may still not be too late to reverse the process. This is the time to stand by the states, not move away.