Country paying a huge price for Modi govt’s policies aimed at enriching crony corporate firms

Modi govt blatantly commercialised COVID-19 vaccines even though mass vaccination drives against smallpox, polio, rabies, measles etc. were always held free by govt since independence

Country paying a huge price for Modi govt’s policies aimed at enriching crony corporate firms

J S Majumdar

The corporate media could not but take note of the beating that the image of PM Narendra Modi and BJP took due to the mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, bringing in stark focus the absence of public healthcare infrastructure both in urban and rural India; lack of equipment, oxygen and medicines and healthcare personnel; and lakhs of counted and uncounted deaths as aptly penned by Parul Khakkar in ‘Shab-Bahini Ganga’.

Realising this negative undercurrent prior to assembly elections in four states due within a few months, the BJP launched a high profile campaign to try and refurbish PM’s and its own image by observing the 71st birthday of Narendra Modi by distributing 14 crore bags with Modi’s picture highlighting the ration distribution; five crore ‘thank you’ postcards addressed to PM by booth-level mobilisation of people; videos on ‘thank you Modiji’ for vaccination etc.

Covid-19 is the disease of the century, invading all countries across the world, with India being one of the worst-affected. Nobody knows how long the virus and its mutants will continue to afflict the world. As of now, mass vaccination is the most important defence against Covid.

But there is great global disparity in respect of production and availability of Covid vaccines due to their high cost which includes patent royalties. As per UNICEF data, out of the total doses administered up to March 30, 2021, 86 percent was in upper and middle-income group countries; and only one percent in the world’s poorest countries.

Nature journal reported that so far in Africa, only two percent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people have received one dose. This is because, among other factors, they have to import 99 per cent of the vaccines at a high cost. On the other side, there is hoarding of Covid vaccines by the rich countries.

This has also brought patent issues to the fore. In October 2020, India and South Africa submitted a proposal at WTO to waive intellectual property rights (IPR) or patents for Covid vaccines. Biden administration in the USA also backed the proposal and 100 plus countries, WHO and UNAIDS supported it. But the big pharma companies fiercely opposed the move. They were fully supported by EU countries on the ground that suspending IPR will remove the incentive for drug companies to innovate.

This is clearly a false claim. Most of the vaccines’ research and technology are public-funded. At least 97 per cent of research into the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, called Covishield in India, has been funded with public money. Moderna, Janssen and BioNTech all received government funding.

US drug MNC Pfizer claims that it opted not to take federal funds offered by the Trump administration under ‘Operation Warp Speed’. But its Covid vaccine technology partner BioNTech received substantial funding from the German government. Further, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) patented technology helped make Pfizer’s and Moderna’s so-called mRNA vaccines possible. BioNTech has a licensing agreement with the NIH and Pfizer is piggybacking on that license.

Using patents, drug monopolies the world over are making Covid pandemic into a huge profit-making business. On May 4, 2021, Pfizer announced that the vaccine brought in $3.5 billion in revenue in the first three months of this year, which was nearly a quarter of its total revenue. Vaccine production was the largest source of its revenue, making for roughly $900 million in pre-tax profits in the first quarter.

Since independence, mass vaccination against diseases like smallpox, polio, rabies, measles, Japanese Encephalitis etc. were never commercialised by the government. But the Modi government had no qualms in commercialising Covid-19 vaccines. Not only that, it is also protecting patents on Covid vaccines.

The Modi government left the production of Covid vaccines entirely to the private companies for profit despite re-opening of closed public sector vaccine firms like Central Research Institute, Kasauli; the Pasteur Institute of India, Coonoor; and the BCG Vaccines Lab, Chennai as per Supreme Court’s order in 2012.

There are other suspended PSU vaccine plants like HLL Biotech in Tamil Nadu; Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Corporation Limited, Uttar Pradesh; Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, Maharashtra; and Human Biologicals Institute, Telangana. Even as the country’s entire population has to be vaccinated, these PSUs are being kept idle.

Even the Rs 904-crore state-of-the-art Integrated Vaccine Complex based in Chengalpattu has been lying idle since its inauguration in 2016.

Under India’s inoculation programme, which began on January 16, 2021, the country has been using two vaccines – Serum Institute’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin. Despite having deactivated Covid vaccine technology by Central government’s institute like Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV), under ICMR, the Modi government kept all the above PSUs idle and hired Bharat Biotech of Hyderabad to produce ‘Covaxin’ for business and profit using ICMR-NIV Covid vaccine technology.

The patent on Covaxin is being shared between Bharat Biotech and the ICMR and both entities gain from royalty payments. The MoU between the ICMR and the BBIL (Bharat Biotech International Limited) includes a royalty clause for the ICMR on net sales and other clauses like prioritisation of in-country supplies, ICMR director general has said.

The Serum Institute of India (SII) has been producing Covishield under license from Swedish-British multinational drug major AstraZeneca and supplying it for mass vaccination at a very high price and sending patent royalties to AstraZeneca.

Even while it raised the patent removal issue at an international forum, the government of India is meekly paying patent royalty to AstraZeneca through SII.

As per the commercialisation of the vaccine plan of the Modi government, effective from May 1, 2021, SII announced that Covishield would be sold to states at Rs 400 per shot and at Rs 600 per dose to private hospitals, while Bharat Biotech set the price of Covaxin at Rs 600 per jab for state governments and Rs 1,200 for private hospitals. Both vaccines would be priced at Rs 150 per dose for the Central government.

Since May 30, 2021 order of the Supreme Court for free vaccination of all adults, both the companies are supplying their patented vaccines to the Central government at a cost of Rs 150 per dose. The government estimated Rs 50,000 crore as the cost of Covid vaccination.

(IPA Service)

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