Though the government continues to deny there is a shortage of vaccines, the numbers put out by Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla on CNBC-TV18 on Tuesday, suggest the government has nearly exhausted its stocks and, so, the vaccination drive will take a nose-dive. Poonawala says he has supplied the government around 10 crore vaccines; possibly another crore, at the outside, has been supplied by Bharat Biotech and, as we know, the government has already used up around nine crore shots. In which case, the government cannot possibly do more than 2-3 million jabs a day for the next few months, given the likely production by Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech.
This is unfortunate since, as infections continue to surge, various chief ministers are asking the Centre for permission to vaccinate all those above the age of 21 since the young are not only contracting the infections, they are also likely to spread it more as they are getting out of the house more; if most of the population is vaccinated, the chances of the attack being severe are reduced and, then, with masks and good hygiene, India can get back on track. As it happens, data from ICMR analysed by the National Centre for Disease Control shows that 22% of those with Covid-19 are 21-30 years old, 22% are 31-40 and another 17% are 41-50. Indeed, if schools are not to lose another year, vaccinations will have to be approved for children and then an intensive programme be put in place to cover them. In the absence of an intensive vaccination strategy, local lockdowns like the one in Maharashtra will spread – the Gujarat high court has suggested one in the state, Bengaluru has imposed Section 144 and there are night lockdowns in many states – and whatever economic recovery has taken place will take a hit.
If vaccination supplies are running short, the question is why things have been allowed to reach this stage and what is being done to fix things. Poonawalla’s comments may be self-serving, but he argues that production cannot be ramped up by using spare capacity at other manufacturers because there is very little available; as such, the only way to quickly ramp up capacity is to divert it from other vaccine production and the bill that he puts for this, in the case of Serum Institute, is Rs 3,000 crore of government grants. In a separate interview, to Business Standard, he has suggested that unless vaccines are sold at $6-7 per shot as opposed to $2 right now, there is no incentive for a vaccine producer. Many believe this is opportunism by Poonawalla, though this newspaper believes the government squeezed the manufacturers too much, but that is not relevant right now. What matters is that Serum Institute or Bharat Biotech be given the necessary funds to ramp up within days and if this results in a few thousand crore of ‘unnecessary’ funding to them, it is a cost worth bearing.
The nation bore the enormous social and financial costs of the initial lockdowns because it didn’t know what the possible costs could be of a full-blown pandemic in terms of health issues and deaths. This time around, it knows the costs of augmenting vaccination supplies and it knows the costs of full-blown or quasi lockdowns. It’s quite a no-brainer.