India’s real story of Covid-19 vaccination programme

Covid-19 vaccine

Covid-19 vaccine

Source: Down To Earth

With a sudden surge in the number of coronavirus cases in India, and as India fights hard to contain the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Down to Earth (DTE), an environmental magazine has revealed some startling facts about the vaccination drive.

The magazine has revealed that so far, only a little over 1 percent of India’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/region/india).

Two companies are producing COVID-19 vaccines in India. These are Serum Institute of India, based in Pune, which is working with AstraZeneca to produce Covishield and Bharat Biotech, based in Hyderabad, has taken a manufacturing license from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to produce Covaxin.

The lead investigator of the magazine, Vibha Varshney questioned the decision to identify only one company (Bharat Biotech) for technology transfer.

“India could have avoided the ongoing crisis of vaccines if it had taken these proactive steps earlier. We have been asking for revival of PSUs way back in 2009, for making vaccines. Involving more companies in manufacturing could have averted the shortage,” says Varshney.

As per the report, India has adequate capacity – the country has a panel of seven PSUs that have the capability to produce vaccines. But the manufacturing licences of three of these PSUs — Central Research Institute, Kasauli; BCG Vaccine Laboratory, Guindy; and Pasteur Institute of India, Conoor — had been cancelled in 2008 as they were not following the good manufacturing practices laid down in the Drugs and Cosmetic Rules, 1945.

The DTE investigation reveals that India also has an Integrated Vaccine Complex in Tamil Nadu which was established to provide vaccines needed for the country’s Universal Immunisation Programme after the closure of the PSUs. Though ready since 2016, this unit too is defunct at the moment. Its employees have not been paid their full salaries.

In a belated move, on April 16, 2021, the government announced a plan to include three PSUs in the vaccine-making process: Haffkine Biopharmaceutical Corporation Ltd, Mumbai (a state PSU), Indian Immunologicals Limited, Hyderabad (a facility under the National Dairy Development Board) and Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Limited, Bulandshahr (under the Department of Biotechnology). Grants will be provided to upgrade these units.

The government has also decided to support Bharat Biotech to upgrade its facilities. All these steps are expected to double the current production capacity of the indigenously developed Covaxin by May-June 2021, and increase it nearly six to seven times by July-August 2021. Vaccine production is expected to go up from one crore doses a month in April 2021 to about seven crore doses in July-August 2021, and nearly 10 crore doses per month by September 2021.

“But what is notable here is that the three major vaccine manufacturing units under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which have the maximum expertise and capacity to produce vaccines, have not been included in this list. Even the Integrated Vaccine Complex does not come in this list,” says Varshney.

 “There is a dearth of good policies in India. The National Vaccine Policy 2011 encourages public-private partnership, but the National Health Policy of 2017 focuses on building more public sector manufacturing units to generate healthy competition, uninterrupted supply of quality vaccines, and anti-sera. But on ground, the government seems to be encouraging only the private sector. Efforts should be made to provide a level playing field for the sectors,” says DTE managing editor Richard Mahapatra:

India is also at the risk of losing its place as the global vaccine hub, cautions the DTE report. China and USA are now manufacturing more COVID-19 vaccines than India.

Till the pandemic stuck, India was the world leader in vaccine production. Its pharmaceutical companies used to churn out 60 per cent of the vaccines needed for global immunisation programmes.

COVID-19 could have given India’s public sector a second chance, points out Mahapatra. Many countries are realising that profit-driven private players might not be enough during a crisis. In Canada, efforts are underway to manufacture vaccines domestically.

Similarly, Cuba has started developing its own vaccine after it failed to pre-book enough doses. China and Russia have also developed vaccines through the public sector.

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