On 19 April, the Union government announced a new vaccine policy. As per this new policy, India will start its fourth phase of mass inoculation which will include people aged 18 and above. In the first three phases, healthcare workers, frontline workers, and people aged above 45 were included. People falling in the age group 18-44 contribute around 45%-50% of the Indian population, therefore, vaccinated such a large group is imperative for India in achieving herd immunity.
India is recording 3 lakhs+ covid-19 cases and 2000+ death every day further, aggravated by the oxygen crisis. India is vaccinating 3 million people every day and has administered 142 million doses to date. These figures seem impressive but not adequate. If we look at vaccinated v/s total population ratio we will find that only 1.63% of the total population is fully vaccinated and corresponding figures in the US, UK, and Israel is 28%, 18%, and 55% respectively. Of Course, India cannot be compared to these countries as India’s population is multiple times larger than these countries. But it certainly shows that we still very far from winning this war.
The primary objective of any vaccination drive anywhere in the world is to achieving herd immunity as soon as possible and for achieving herd immunity any nation has to vaccinate 70-80% of its population.
But as per this policy, out of total domestically produced vaccine doses, 50% will go to the union government (which will be further distributed to states) and 50% will go to open-market (from where state governments, private hospitals, and other vaccination facilities can buy). These doses which are provided by the Union government can only be used for healthcare workers, frontline workers, and people aged above 45 (as earlier). Thus, the onus of vaccinating people falling in the age group 18-44 years is on state government and private hospitals i.e., other than Union government channels.
The question is can the Union government afford to avoid 45% of India’s population and still feel confident to achieve herd immunity?
Pandemic v/s Profit
This new policy allows the producer of vaccines i.e., Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech to pre-decide the price per dose in the open market. Presently, the Union government is procuring vaccine doses from SII at a price of ₹150 per dose and providing to states as per their demand (number of registration and walk-in vaccination). On April 6, the CEO of Serum Institute of India in an interview admitted that they are earning normal profits even at a price of ₹150 per dose. He also said that they are sacrificing ‘super profits’ which they could have used for competing western companies.
After the announcement of the new policy, SII announced that it will sell doses to state government and private hospitals at ₹400 and ₹600 per dose respectively. It implies that state governments have to bear a huge financial burden if they want their young population to get vaccinated free of cost. Moreover, earlier private hospitals were charging ₹250 per dose (₹150 cost plus ₹100 service charge) but this latest increase in price will make it further expensive (approx. ₹700-₹800 per dose).
Policymakers have failed to take into consideration the disparity of income between states. State which is not so well off financially now has to compete with other richer states and private hospitals. It implies that if a state government fails to procure adequate vaccine doses, then its poor people falling in the age bracket 18-44 will not get vaccinated. This increase in price will certainly not going to affect the affluent class of society as they can go anytime to a private hospital and get vaccinated. Further, we can say that first priority of producers will be private hospitals rather than state governments as there is a huge price difference between their respective prices.
Questions arise is it ethical to raise prices when the nation is facing such a catastrophic situation? Are profits more important than the lives of these poor people? Why Union government is allowing it?
On January 16, India’s first phase of the vaccination drive started at that point India was recording approx. 15000 coronavirus cases per day. In this initial phase people were hesitant before taking vaccination and cases were also low thus, demand for vaccine doses very not very high. Further, SII promised to deliver 100 million doses per month (but is able to deliver only 60-65 million doses per month). All of these factors made the Union government felt like they are about to win this war. On January 20, the Indian government initiated its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ program under which it promised to help deliver vaccine doses to foreign nations. As of now, India has sent 66.4 million doses to foreign nations free of cost. This is well praised humanitarian initiative but at what cost?
It seems like Indian leadership just wanted a pat on its back. India cannot afford such myopic decision-making and policies. The Indian government has to be prudent before taking any further steps in this catastrophic situation.