Pricing, procurement, supply and distributon of Covid vaccines still leave many questions unanswered

People and now the Supreme Court are looking for some method in the ‘irrational and arbitrary policies’ of the Union Government, which says it is confident of vaccinating all of India by year end

Representative Image
Representative Image

AJ Prabal

At a press conference in August last year Dr Krishna Ella, Bharat Biotech’s founder and Managing Director, pointed to a bottle of drinking water and dramatically claimed that a dose of the vaccine being developed by the company would cost less than the water bottle. In fact, he said that the bottle was five times more expensive than what the vaccine would eventually cost. In other words, if the water bottle cost Rs 100, Dr Ella was putting the cost of one dose of the vaccine at Rs 20. He would have included a certain percentage as profit, it was presumed.

A 10% profit on a cost of Rs 20 would have fetched the company two crore rupees a month if it sold one crore doses and double the amount if it could sell two crore doses. At the cost of Rs. 250 per dose, the percentage of profit remaining the same, the company would of course earn Rs. 25 crore or Rs. 50 crore a month.

While the vaccine was sold to the Government at Rs. 250 per dose, hotels and private hospitals have been charging amounts ranging from Rs. 800 to Rs. 1,600. Even Adar Poonawalla of the Serum Institute of India went on record to concede that SII was earning a profit even after selling a dose at Rs 250 to the Government. But the company has been allowed to sell its vaccine to state governments at Rs 400 per dose and to private hospitals at Rs 600 per dose. Private hospitals are allowed to charge whatever they feel like. India is the only country where the vaccines are not being given free. Indeed, it is the only country where the same vaccine manufactured by the same company is being sold at multiple prices.

Former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram this week applauded companies like Reliance Industries Ltd and HCL for pledging to vaccinate their employees and their family members. But he pointedly asked the companies to inform the source of supply of vaccines to them when state governments are complaining that they cannot source them from anywhere.

“So, from where do the corporates expect to get their supplies? The proper thing to do is direct a CAG driven full-scope audit of capacity, production, despatch, supply and customers’ lists of the two domestic manufacturers,” he said.

The missing vaccines: The enigma of the ‘missing’ vaccines is another mystery waiting to be cracked.

Asked by when all Indian adults could get vaccinated, the answer from the GoI ministers has been that the mission would be accomplished by the end of 2021. But the International Monetary Fund (IMF) claimed in a report last month that at the present pace, only 33% of Indians could get fully vaccinated by the end of the year. Supply and production constraints and if developed countries decided in favour of a third dose for their citizens, the percentage could be even lower, it said.

Niti Aayog member V.K. Paul claims that India would have 216 crore doses of vaccines by the end of this year, enough to fully vaccinate 90 crore adults. However, his calculation included eight vaccines, of which five had not yet been authorised in India or anywhere else till the end of May. Data published by the New York Times on June 1 showed 81 countries had vaccinated a higher percentage of their population than India. The number a week earlier was 75. Why is the pace of vaccination slowing down in India? As on the first day of June, less than 4% of Indians or 4.5 crore, had been fully vaccinated. The government’s target is to vaccinate 25 crore Indians by July.

Covaxin Doses: In two affidavits before the Supreme Court and the Kerala High Court, the Union Government claimed that Hyderabad based Bharat Biotech had the capacity to manufacture two crore doses of Covaxin every month. Strangely, by May 27 last month, official data suggested that 2.1 crore doses of Covaxin had been administered to Indians.

Even if one buys Bharat Biotech’s explanation that ‘capacity’ to produce is not the same as actual production, around 5 crore doses would have been produced by Bharat Biotech between January and May at half the capacity. Where did the remaining doses go?

These and other questions will hopefully be answered in the affidavit that the Supreme Court has asked the Government to file before the hearing likely on June 30. Till then, suspense about India’s vaccination drive, it seems, will continue

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