On April 19, while addressing the country about the Covid pandemic, Prime Minister Modi announced a “liberalised and accelerated Covid-19 vaccination strategy” of his government. He presented it as a gift to the people saying that every adult above the age of 18 will be eligible for the Covid vaccine from 1 May 2021. However, the details given by him and made public later, about the new vaccine policy, show that having already privatised its production, now even administering of the vaccine is being privatised. The new policy is totally anti-people, anti-social and discriminatory and is bound to worsen the current public health crisis.
Upto May 1, the central government procured the entire available quantity of vaccine in the country and distributed it to the states. From May 1, it has control over only half the quantity of vaccines produced. Vaccine producers are free to sell the other half at whatever price they fix to private hospitals. Private hospitals will also be free to decide their price for administering the vaccine. State governments will receive only half of the earlier allocated quota of vaccines from the central government and will now have to compete with private hospitals for getting the rest of their requirement of vaccines. (See Box for details of the new policy). Thus, administering of the Covid vaccine is now being privatised, without any government control on its price.
The production of Covid vaccine has been privatised despite the existence of seven central and state government owned vaccine companies/laboratories – Haffkine Pharmaceutical Corporation, Mumbai ; Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Corporation, Bulandshahr (UP); HLL Biotech Ltd, Chennai; Human Biologicals Institute, Hyderabad; Pasteur Institute of India, Coonoor (Tamil Nadu); Central Research Institute, Kasauli, (Himachal Pradesh); BCG Vaccine Laboratory, Guindy (Tamil Nadu). The central government tied up with a private pharma company, Bharat Biotech for the development and production of Covid vaccine rather than supporting units in the public sector. Over the years, under different central and state governments, public sector units have been deliberately neglected and allowed to deteriorate, in order to encourage private vaccine producers, even for vaccines required for the government’s universal immunization programme. Bharat Biotech has even been allowed to patent its Covid vaccine that has been developed with government funds. It is not even being directed to license public sector units to manufacture Covid vaccine without paying any license fee.
Consequently, there are only two Covid vaccine producers in the country, with one producer monopolising nearly 90% of production at this stage, while public sector units are being prevented from producing the vaccine.
While the prices of all essential drugs covered under the Drug Price Control Act are controlled by the central government, the government does not consider the vaccine for Covid as ‘essential’. It has given freedom to vaccine producers to decide the price! It is therefore not surprising that Covid vaccine prices fixed by Indian private monopolies are among the highest in the world.
On April 25 it was announced that the government controlled price for Covaxin for the state governments will be Rs. 600, while for private hospitals it will be Rs. 1200. If the price of Covaxin by a hospital is set at Rs 1500 per dose (Rs 1200 for vaccine + Rs 300 for administering it), one dose will cost Rs 7500 for a family of five. The full course of 2 doses will cost Rs 15,000 to the family, which is more than the monthly income of a vast majority of the working people in the country. Further, this expense may have to be incurred every year. The privatisation of Covid vaccination will definitely deprive a large number of working people of vaccination.
To justify the handing over Covid vaccine production totally to monopoly capitalist companies, the government had asserted that private producers will rapidly build the capacity to meet the country’s requirement. However, the private producers have failed to produce enough vaccine so far. The country’s current production capacity is only 6.5-7 crore doses per month or 22 lakh doses per day. Due to this, only 160 lakh people have received one dose while only 35 lakh have received both the doses of vaccine (as of 25 Apr 2021) during the last three months. The number of people of the age above 45 years to be vaccinated is around 34 crore. From 1 May 2021, the total number of people eligible for vaccination has increased by about 60 crore.
Meanwhile, the country is passing through another devastating phase of the pandemic, far worse than the earlier phase. The acute shortage of hospital beds, oxygen supplies, essential medicines, ambulances, doctors and nurses is responsible for lakhs of deaths, even as people are being denied access to the vaccine. The pace of vaccination is getting limited by the availability of vaccine. People have to wait for weeks for their turn. The government’s announced program of starting vaccination for the 18-45 age group has failed to take off on the ground, even as people of the older age groups are still awaiting their first or second doses of the vaccine. The situation is getting worse after May 1, with states receiving only half the supply of vaccine they were earlier receiving from the central government. The gap between demand and supply of vaccine is expected to remain large even after 3 months when the vaccine production is expected to be roughly doubled. Private hospitals will take advantage of the situation and the desperation of people, to charge any price they want for the vaccine. The new vaccine policy will thus provide a big opportunity for immense profiteering to both private producers and private hospitals. This will further deprive the working people from access to vaccines.
It is the duty and responsibility of the central government to ensure adequate availability of vaccine to different states and to ensure that every eligible individual is vaccinated without discrimination on any ground.
The new vaccination policy is yet one more step towards privatisation of healthcare. It is the right of every person to have equal access to vaccine. The utter criminality of the state that serves the interests of only the biggest monopoly capitalists can be seen in the fact that it is abdicating its responsibility of protecting every citizen of the country from the pandemic. It is on the contrary helping vaccine producers and private corporate hospital chains to make thousands of crores of profit out of the deadly health crisis.
New Covid Vaccine Policy
From May 1, the supply of Covid vaccine has been divided into two lots: 50 per cent for the central government, and 50 per cent for the open market. State governments, private hospitals, and industries that have facilities to administer the vaccine, will have to procure doses directly from manufacturers through the open market channel.
Vaccines allotted by the central government to states will be used to vaccinate healthcare workers, frontline workers, and those above 45 free of charge at the state government run vaccination centres. The 50 per cent lot of vaccine doses earmarked for states and private hospitals in the open market will be used to vaccinate those above the age of 18 years.
Imported vaccines will be routed only through private hospitals and state governments who have been given freedom to import, though no import has taken place so far. Foreign pharma monopolies will now be able to sell their vaccines in the open market in India at the prices set by them.
So far, when healthcare workers, frontline workers, and those above the age of 45 were vaccinated, the central government purchased the vaccines directly from the manufacturers, and allotted them to the states. The states distributed the stock to government vaccination centres, which administered the vaccine free of charge, and to private hospitals that charged recipients Rs 250 per dose. Out of the Rs 250, private hospitals retained Rs 100 while Rs 150 went back to the government.