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Modi Govt Must be Held Responsible for Vaccine Shortage

Vaccine Shortage

NEW DELHI — As India grapples with a flood tide of coronavirus infections, people arriving at vaccination centers in some parts of the country are being told there are not any shots available. On Friday, dozens of hospitals in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, halted vaccinations because their supplies ran out, consistent with an inventory prepared by the municipal authority.

If no additional supplies are received, the city’s vaccinations will completely stop on Saturday, said Kishori Pednekar, Mumbai’s mayor. “We are anxious,” she said. “To stop the second wave, we need this.”

The Centre seems to be in total denial about vaccine shortages within the country, and is blaming the states for mismanaging available stocks. The fact is that the Centre, as monopoly buyer and supplier of all vaccines, did not anticipate higher vaccination demand for the 45-plus age bracket.

Simple math explains the problem at hand. The total production capacity of the manufacturers of Covishield and Covaxin, the two local players, is roughly 24 lakh vaccines a day. The current demand is 37 lakh vaccines a day. The daily shortage is already huge and is probably getting concealed by some past inventory stocks of Covishield. The gap will become more acute in the weeks ahead because production capacity increase will take time, even if it is already underway.

In March, demand didn’t exceed supply because there was some vaccine hesitancy and new infection rates were under control. But the demand has suddenly spiked since April 1, thanks to the second surge in infections also because the age threshold for vaccination being reduced to 45 plus. By now, production capacity increase should have already happened. The Centre clearly planned it very badly. Several Indian states have reported dwindling vaccine inventories in recent days. In the eastern state of Odisha, authorities temporarily shuttered 700 vaccination centers — half the total — due to a lack of supplies, said P.K. Mohapatra, the state’s health secretary. “We have a shortage of vaccines,” he said Friday, adding that he was not aware of when fresh stocks would arrive. “Whatever is available will last until tomorrow.”

The reports of vaccine shortages come as India is facing record numbers of coronavirus infections. On Thursday, the country added quite 130,000 cases, a high within the pandemic. Experts believe that a scarcity of social distancing, waning innate immunity and new variants of the virus — including a “double-mutant” variety first found in India — are behind a second wave of infections raging across the country. To counter the surge, India opened its vaccination drive at the beginning of April to everyone over the age of 45, vastly expanding the pool of individuals eligible for the vaccine. The central government in New Delhi says there’s no shortage of supplies and has accused state authorities of mismanaging things . 

Harsh Vardhan, the health minister, called talk of shortages “fear mongering” and said more than 40 million doses were in stock or nearing delivery to states. That India could face a supply crunch comes as a surprise: it’s home to the Serum Institute of India, one among the world’s largest vaccine makers, which features a partnership to manufacture the vaccine jointly developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University . More than 90 million vaccine doses have been administered in India, the vast majority of them made by Serum. India has also exported more than 64 million doses. In recent weeks, however, worries a few mismatch between supply and demand have grown. India put the brakes on vaccine exports as infections increased.

V.K. Paul, a senior health official, said in an interview on March 31 that a “delicate balance” was required and that India hoped to resume exports within weeks. India is giving away millions of coronavirus vaccine doses as a tool of diplomacy Paul said the Serum Institute is producing about 60 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine a month which Bharat Biotech, another Indian firm, is producing 10 million doses a month of a locally developed vaccine called Covaxin.

India is currently vaccinating more than 3 million people a day on average. T.S. Singh Deo, health minister of the central state of Chhattisgarh, said his state nearly ran out of doses earlier this week. It subsequently received new shipments and now has stock for 3 days’ worth of vaccinations, he said. In the earlier phases of vaccination — largely limited to health-care and front-line workers — the numbers were small, Deo said. “As soon as you went into larger numbers, the challenge was on the assembly availability.” In the state of Maharashtra, currently home to the country’s worst outbreak, a handful of districts have reportedly suspended vaccinations altogether due to a lack of supplies.

Reports of shortages are also cropping up elsewhere in the country. Tanu Singh, a manager at a hospital in Ghaziabad within the state of Uttar Pradesh , said the power had “zero” vaccines as of Thursday but hoped to receive a fresh supply on Saturday. “It was going smoothly until the vaccination was opened for people above 45,” said Singh. The hospital’s administrators placed a notice at the reception counter informing people that they “deeply regret” not having vaccines. Bharat Biotech, which makes Covaxin, has much smaller capacity, probably but 10 million doses a month.

Like the Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech had also asked for capital support from the government to ramp up capacity in February. Predictably, the babus have been slow to respond to the need for additional capital.

The truth is that the Centre has been very slow in anticipating the need for capacity expansion to deal with a second surge of infections, which would require a much higher level of vaccination. This problem has occurred largely because a bunch of bureaucrats at the Centre have been put in charge of decision-making on production and distribution capacity across the country.

Since the government is the sole buyer, it influences decisions on capacity expansion. If this had been left to the private sector, with the government just setting a price and subsidising the poor, things would have been very different.

Why the Modi government is so insistent on centralising procurement is inexplicable. And when things go wrong, it blames the distribution problems on the states. Union minister Prakash Javadekar said the Centre only procures the vaccines and distribution at the district level is the responsibility of the states. He is specially taking a dig at opposition-ruled states. So, would Javadekar please explain the failure of BJP-run states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh where the shortages are as much even if their chief ministers are quiet about it. The Centre must stop this blame game and accept primary responsibility.

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