Vaccine Crisis Amid The Second Wave
“The new year has brought a new ray of hope in the form COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine developed in India is safe and effective and provides immunity against COVID. That's why trust the Indian vaccines. Please take vaccination when your turn comes, and don't trust rumours.”
There is no way you would have missed this PSA unless you are still in the Stone Age and do not own a mobile phone; in which case, you are living an incredibly peaceful life; do not change anything! Assuming that those devices in your pockets dictate even your life, you must be, like most others, irritated by hearing that caller tune and not being able to skip it. However irritating it might be, the caller tune drives home a critical issue- COVID-19 vaccinations. With the coronavirus lingering for over a year now, vaccinations are our one shot which may bring our life back to normalcy.
Mass vaccination, however, is not something that can be implemented quickly. Add the massive population of a country like India to the equation, and the process becomes even more complicated. The situation appears even more problematic when you consider the fact that only about a dozen countries in the world are producing vaccines.
(Chart of countries producing COVID-19 vaccine)
Suppose you have visited any vaccination centre accompanying an elder member from your family. In that case, there are high chances that you would have been witness to people complaining about vaccines running short and not being vaccinated. If a simple summary of the situation were to be given, it would be: currently, there are not enough vaccines for everyone.
India’s Vaccination Drive and Exports
Everyone above the age of 45 is now eligible for jabs available at vaccination centres and hospitals. Most of the doses have been given so far to frontline workers and people above 60. India has administered more than 94 million doses of coronavirus vaccines so far. Over 70 million people have received one dose, and over 10 million people have been fully vaccinated after receiving two doses, a milestone in itself. As per a report in The Hindu, at the current pace, India would be able to administer 289 million doses by July 31, around 111 million doses short of the target of 400 million. To meet the July 31 target, the country must administer nearly 3 million doses daily, starting March 31.
India is facing a second wave of coronavirus, and the number of new COVID cases is increasing at an alarming rate. During such a time, the government’s vaccine export policy or ‘vaccine diplomacy’ has come under heavy scrutiny. As per the statistics on the Ministry of External Affairs’ official website, India is currently exporting vaccines to 85 countries. A total of 645.12 lakhs of vaccine supplies have been exported as of 10th April. A strong argument can certainly be made that India’s vaccine diplomacy is causing shortages. There have been cries from several quarters that more vaccines are needed for the frontline workers at maximum risk. The Ministry recently rejected an appeal to vaccinate the students of CFTIs (Centrally Funded Technically Institute). A huge controversy even erupted when reports erupted that a few hundred students from IIT Gandhinagar have been vaccinated out of turn. So in such a situation where vaccine shortage is being faced for the frontline workers and students being vaccinated is causing a controversy, India’s vaccine diplomacy brings up certain questions.
The Vaccine ‘Scarcity’
Amid the Covid-19 numbers rising well-nigh exponentially and the scary death tolls, many states complained of facing severe shortages of the vaccine against the virus, now in its second wave. States like Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand claimed to be facing the vaccine crisis. Simultaneously, reports emerged from several other states that vaccine centres were shutting early or turning people away due to supplies running out. We all must have seen the pictures of boards stating “Vaccine Out of Stock” outside vaccination centres in many parts of the country.
At this point, it is no secret that Maharashtra is witnessing the highest daily spikes in cases of Covid-19 and is also the first state that flagged the shortage of vaccine, following which many other states (non-BJP ruled) joined in. Grave cases of vaccine shortage came to the fore recently when Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot sent an SOS to the Centre regarding vaccine supply, and a majority of inoculation facilities in Mumbai shut, including a jumbo-centre in Bandra Kurla complex with a capacity of giving 4000 doses daily as supplies reportedly dried up.
The second most problematic state is Chhattisgarh, seeing a spike of more than 10,000 cases daily. The state has repeatedly been flagging the shortage and the concern of running out of the vaccine in a matter of two-three days. On Friday, Odisha’s Chief Secretary said that the State, although equipped to inoculate 3 lakh people per day, had to shut down two-third of its vaccination centres because of “lack of supply” and that several districts were in “out-of-stock” situation.
India's vaccination drive, the world's biggest, began on 16 January and aimed to cover 250 million people by July. And in the way of reaching such ambitious goals, it becomes highly imperative to reach to the depth of reasons behind the shortage in a nation that makes 60% of the world's vaccines and is home to half a dozen major manufacturers, including the Serum Institute of India - the largest in the world. A very prominent reason behind this can be supply bottlenecks. Vaccine makers had also possibly "oversold" their capacities while taking orders from all over the world, as India tries to show its benevolence to the world. With the widening of the base of people eligible for vaccination, the production rate has not gone up to meet the demands. Additionally, wastage of vaccine that occurs at three levels: during transportation, during cold chain point, and at a vaccination site — both at service and delivery levels, may have contributed to the current crisis too.
Serum Institute of India, which makes the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, known locally as Covishield (constitutes 90% of doses administered in India), has provided clues. This week, it said its production capacity was "very stressed". Adar Poonawalla, the head of the firm, said in an interview on Indian television that "we are still short of being able to supply to every Indian." Serum says it has been providing 65-70 million doses every month to India and exported a total of nearly an equal amount of doses since it began production early this year. Additionally, Serum is selling a dose of the vaccine at $2 to India's government and "this rate is not enough to sustain further expansion," he says, flagging the case of very apparent financial miscalculation by the Central government.
Right now, SII says that it can supply a total of 6 crore doses a month, while Bharat Biotech promises 1 crore doses of Covaxin per month.
Undoubtedly, this shortage ought to have a worldwide impact.
The Union Health Minister came out with a very rash reply on this issue with such gravity, and his comments have made way for a tussle between many states and the Centre. In the strongly-worded response, Dr Harsh Vardhan said allegations of vaccine shortage are “utterly baseless”. “This is nothing but an attempt to divert attention from Maharashtra government’s repeated failures to control the spread of the pandemic,” he said. Is this really a time for blame game and propaganda politics on the issue of its citizen’s health is the question the ruling party must ask itself.
On Thursday, he said that 13.5 crore doses of vaccine were available, and out of these, 10 crore doses had been administered till Saturday. The rest, about 3.5 crores, were either in the pipeline or in stock. With India administering a whooping 30-40 lakh doses per day, it suggests that the existing stockpile should be available for 10-13 days. However, every state gets varying replenishment based on past usage, vulnerable population and requirement.
(A stat tweeted by Dr Harsh Vardhan)
Hue and cry by certain states about partisanship by the union government is just a farce, an attempt to hide their own incompetence
-he further went on to tweet. He claimed that Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan were the three biggest receivers of vaccine supply.
The rampant second way is indeed a time of medical emergency for the entire nation. As vaccine hesitancy is gradually coming to an end, it is time that the government starts to focus more on the very right issues at hand. Exporting vaccines to many nations in need is a perfect step in building international cooperation and being the big brother to these financially not-so-stable countries, but balancing it with the domestic needs is what the government must strive to achieve. With that, the Centre must also come out with more responsible replies to the opposition while they flag such grave issues.