Thursday, July 18, 2024

Confusion over production, supply, and rate of vaccine

Supreme Court questions Vaccine inequality

People are wondering how a commercial producer of vaccine fixes different prices for same vaccine for different kinds of users including central and state governments. It reflects total surrender of the Government to the private businessmen abdicating constitutional responsibilities. Because of this slavery to commerce, it does not deserve to be called a Government at all.

There is another angle to the vaccine commerce in India. The Serum Institute of India chief Adar Poonawalla flew to London last week before UK imposed ban on travellers from India. He claimed in an interview with The Times, that as he was being threatened in India he came over to London, not interested in coming back to India and would like produce vaccine in other countries. He said that he got soft threats for stocks of vaccine and it was difficult in such situation. 

When The Times asked him about possible spread of virus because of Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand’s  Haridwar and conduct of Assembly elections, he answered “I can’t comment on the elections or Kumbh Mela. It’s too sensitive…I don’t think even God could have forecast it was going to get this bad….If I give you the right answer, or any answer, my head would be chopped off,” The Government assured to have expressed readiness to provide high security to Poonawalla.

Centre announces without ensuring supply

There is a total confusion in Government machinery regarding stocks, supply and rate of vaccine. Without understanding the need in the country, huge quantum of vaccine was exported, SII was allowed to fix differential rates to same vaccine for centre, states and private distribution. The Centre announced vaccine for all ages since May 1 without ensuring supplies and the whole program came to a standstill all over the country as people registered for it but could not get it. Nobody knows when it will start. It is not sure whether SII will produce more quantities or as contemplated by its chief, it will produce vaccine in other countries.

The Bench has rightly raised question how the Centre expected a sense of equity from the vaccine manufacturers. Justice Bhat pointed out that manufacturers were charging Rs.150 from the Centre while vaccines to the States were priced at Rs. 300.“Why should we as a nation pay this? The price difference becomes Rs.30 to 40,000 crore… AstraZeneca is providing vaccines at far lower price to the U.S. citizens then why should we be paying so much?” Justice Bhat asked. Thanks to Justice Bhat for asking these questions.

Why not use Patent Act?

The Bench also asked why the Centre had not considered using powers under Section 92 of Patents Act for compulsory licensing of the COVID-19 vaccines. Another common man’s question the court asked is: why the Centre had not procured 100% of the vaccines and equitably distributed them across the country, but was instead leaving it to manufacturers. When Centre itself  is buying only 50 per cent doses it may not be possible for it to enforce equity in vaccine distribution. The court went further to declare that the vaccine manufacturing was publicly funded and vaccines were public property, the court noted.

When the Centre could think of buying 50 per cent of doses why not all the 100 per cent, Court asked. The judges also asked: “Now, one State would get priority access over another in getting the vaccines, why the government could not follow a national immunisation programme policy with respect to vaccines.” At one point, Justice Chandrachud questioned how the Centre intended to ensure registration for vaccines for illiterate people when COWINApp is made mandatory. The Bench suggested that a display mechanism must be put in place for real time updates on oxygen supply from Centre to the states.

Convert temples into hospitals!

The Supreme Court said the situation in the country is grim as even doctors and healthcare workers are not getting beds in hospitals. “Hostels, temples, churches and other places should be opened and converted into Covid care centres. Also, the healthcare sector has come to a breaking point and retired doctors or officials should be re-employed,” the Bench added.

Now that  the elections and kumbh mela are out of the way, the Government should focus on administration and strive for vaccine equity in India.

Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Author is Dean, Professor of law at Mahindra University at Hyderabad and former Central Information Commissioner. He published a number books in English and Telugu.


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