A Critical Look into India’s Vaccine Policy
By Shreshtha Menon
The Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed a catastrophe across the globe. International agencies and large pharmaceutical companies have been racing to create an effective vaccine. The goal being to inoculate mass population and create herd immunity which has proven to curb the spread of the virus. Until May 2021 more than 1.52 billion vaccines doses have been administered worldwide but there still remains a stark difference in the vaccine programmers between countries. Nearly half of the population in countries such as US, Canada, UK, France and Germany have been vaccinated. But the in India is situation different. While most countries are preparing to reopen their economy, India is barely able to cope with the havoc wreaked by the second wave of pandemic despite being the largest manufacturer of vaccines. Through this article I want to focus on why India’s vaccine program has failed and the ways in which its coverage can be improved.
Problems with India’s Vaccination policy.
The vaccination drive in India began from 6th January 2021. There are 3,006 vaccination centers. These centers are administering only two vaccines, namely, Serum Institute of India’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech's Covaxin which was approved by the DCGI for emergency usage. The vaccine was given in three phases. First rollout to health workers and frontline workers including police, paramilitary forces, sanitation workers, and disaster management volunteers. Second rollout to all residents over the age of 60. During March 2021, India faced a surge in Covid-19 cases. In May the government announced the third phase of vaccines to be administered to resident above the age of 18. But why did the number of Covid-19 cases increase when India had begun its vaccination drive?
There are a number of reason for this. First, initial efforts had low turnout due to stigma against the side effects of the vaccine, technical problems, lack of volunteers and misinformation. Second, by April 2021, many states faces storage of vaccine stocks. Due to this reason during the ‘Tika Utsav’ announced by the PM from April 11 to 14, citizen stood in queue for hours while most of the centers didn’t have the vaccines. Third, the Government depended only on two vaccine manufacturers. While several other vaccine manufacturer offered themselves to India, the government relied only on Serum institution and Bharat Biotech. Further, Bharat Biotech and Serum Institution had requested the government for grants and assistance to increase their production capacity. Their requests were unheeded by the government. The vaccine producers had to produce vaccine to meet national demands as well as fulfill international obligations. Consequently, it created a shortage in vaccine stocks. Fourth, the government short-sightedness and mismanagement created more chaos. Covid-19 protocols were relaxed in many places against advice of experts. Schools, colleges and companies had been reopened. Large crowds were allowed to gather for election rallies. Religious festivals were conducted with little to no supervision by the government. Fifth, the government’s decision to decentralize the procurement to state and private entities has been criticized by many. Manufacturers can now directly sale 50% of its sale to state and private entities. It will led state’s to compete with international market to procure vaccine in these desperate times. Sixth, appointment for vaccine doses can be scheduled only through online medium, this poses a problem for a country in which majority of its population does not have internet access.
Because these reasons, as on 20 May’21, India has administered 14,46,23,670 First doses of vaccine and only 4,23,86,122 of second doses of vaccine making the total doses administered at 18,70,09,792. Only 3% of the population has received both the doses. Many experts have suggest that at this rate, it will take India 2.5 years to get 75% of its population vaccinated. At this rate a third wave of covid-19 seems inevitable.
How can the vaccine policy be improved
With the second wave there is a ‘Vaccine restlessness’ among the citizens. Thousands queue for hours to receive their doses. Those who had taken the first dose would receive the second shot anytime soon, they would have to undergo the vaccine process again. It’s also difficult to schedule an appointment to book the doses of vaccine due to large influx of online traffic which causes the site to often crash. The government’s silence and failure to provide an effective plan has ignited public anger and dissatisfaction.
There is an urgent need to develop a new coverage strategy. With the current vaccine strategy it will take a very long time to reach herd immunity. A city wise coverage strategy would be more effective in creating local herd immunity. The age criteria should be relaxed to bring more people under the rollout. Vaccination drive should be focused in areas with high population density. Vaccines which have proven to be safe like Covovax and Pfizer's mRNA vaccines should be imported and it should be administered through emergency use. India should invest in vaccine manufacturers to increase their production capacity. Additionally, covid-19 precautions should be rigorously enforced such as preventing crowds, requiring masking as well as further delaying the opening of educational institutions.
India is currently producing 75 million doses every month and is expected to increase its production to 100 million doses by June. It has also approved Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine and has ordered 5 million doses expected to arrive by June. The international community has promised millions of doses to India. However, even with international aid, it is difficult to procure billion plus doses for its 900 million population which is eligible for the vaccine. India will soon have to bring changes to its vaccine policy in order to get curbs its spread.