Budget 2021: Government must earmark a budget to stop counterfeiting of COVID-19 vaccines

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Updated: Dec 21, 2020 1:53 PM

Union Budget 2021 India: While the vaccine can save lives, a falsified COVID-19 vaccine will kill human beings as well as erode the public confidence in healthcare systems, healthcare professionals, and government agencies.

Budget 2021-22, budget 2021 covid19There is a high possibility that criminals will attempt to exploit the current global focus on COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo source: Reuters)

Indian Union Budget 2021-22: Almost every person on this planet is eagerly waiting for COVID-19 vaccines and the wait is about to end as Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that a vaccine may be ready in a few weeks. But, as we are getting closer towards the vaccine, new crime trends have alarmed stakeholders globally. While the vaccine can save lives, a falsified vaccine will kill human beings as well as erode the public confidence in healthcare systems, healthcare professionals, and government agencies. Greater risk of harm to consumers will result in greater liability for healthcare providers.

The incidents of falsified vaccines are not new for India and the world. Recently, the World Health Organization detected a falsified influenza vaccine in Mexico in October 2020. In the Indian scenario, last year, a big racket was busted in Rajasthan which was involved in counterfeit Meningitis vaccines. Reference to COVID-19 vaccines, three months ago, in September 2020, Odisha’s drug enforcement agency arrested a man on charges of trying to sell fake COVID-19 vaccines in the Bargarh district. The accused was nabbed while preparing vials with coronavirus vaccine stickers on them.

Experts believe that these criminal activities will likely be exacerbated once COVID-19 vaccines become available. According to Nakul Pasricha, President, Authentication Solution Providers’ Association (ASPA), there is a high possibility that criminals will attempt to exploit the current global focus on COVID-19 vaccines and will spread disinformation about vaccines to defraud individuals and companies.   

Dr Anant Bhan, a researcher in the fields of global health and health policy and former president of the International Association of Bioethics, told Financial Express Online that such falsified vaccines can be very dangerous as it will give a false sense of protection to people receiving them. “People who will get these falsified vaccines will feel that they are vaccinated and don’t need to take any precautions like wearing a mask and follow norms of social distancing. This will not only put that person at greater risk but also those who will come in close contact. This is why it is very important to take appropriate steps to stop these things from happening.” Dr Bhan said.

COVID-19 Vaccine And Challenges For India 

Pasricha said that is very important to understand that counterfeiters are not going to produce vaccines. “There will be challenges amongst regulators to maintain supply chain integrity, traceability, as well as ensuring the safe delivery of these vaccines to citizens. There are already loopholes in our systems. It is important to understand that counterfeiters will not produce any vaccine; they will simply fool people by replicating the packaging, while potentially putting ineffective or even unsafe contents inside the vial. The absence of anti-counterfeiting and traceability measures is going to make their task easy,” he said

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The counterfeiting activities are not limited to pharmaceutical products. The government witnessed a shortfall of Rs. 50,000 crores in direct taxes collection during the year 2018-19. Accordingly, the shortfall in tax collection this year is expected to be over Rs 2 lakh crores. At the same time, these activities are causing more than Rs 1 trillion loss of sale to industries and the economy every year. Reports suggest that the estimated tax loss to the exchequer from counterfeiting products is approx Rs 39,239 crores.

The ASPA president said that policies ensuring implementation of active anti-counterfeiting measures across sectors can bring a huge turnaround for the economy by contributing to the revenues of both the government and businesses.

This considerable amount of added government revenue can be invested towards schemes for citizen wellbeings such as health and education. The amount can definitely bring a positive change as India spent less than 4 per cent of its budget on health and ranked 155th on the health spending index. Our health budget is the fourth lowest in the world.

Earmark Budget For Combating Counterfeiting

The government should strategically allocate funds towards combating counterfeiting and nurturing the authentication ecosystem across industries and across the country. More and more countries are investing and reframing their anti-counterfeiting programs such as tax stamps program for monitoring excisable goods. “If we talk about other countries, an estimate suggests that Russia may add around 1.2 per cent to its GDP by simply reducing illegal trafficking and trade activities and improving the effectiveness of the government’s supervision activities. The use of phygital tax stamps for excisable goods has contributed to a 34 percent increase in revenue for Tanzania Authorities. Public finances are under strain from the impact of COVID-19 pandemic and can be boosted considering by investment in Authentication and traceability programs,” Pasricha said.

On similar lines, Dr Bhan said there should be enough budget not only to purchase vaccines but also to ensure there is a proper transport chain and suitable storage is available. “There should be some budget for additional human resources who are trained as this is going to be a whole new exercise. Which means, the government will have to higher new vaccinator and staff and will have to pay their salaries,” he added.

Cutting Edge Authentication And Traceability Solutions Needed

Globally, there are proven models working in the European Union and the USA for pharmaceuticals. In fact, in India, almost 22 States Excise Departments are using systems ensuring genuinity of liquor products as well as ensuring revenue enhancement. Every year more than 22 billion liquor bottles are secured with authentication and technological measures. As a country, we are fully capable of adopting these proven systems. Pasricha feels that regulators can learn from these and adopt any one of them according to our & global requirements and should embrace this crisis as an opportunity to build strong healthcare systems in the country.

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