Exploring An Exit To India’s Covid Management Maze

India’s Covid-19 Crisis is Spiraling Out of Control. It Didn’t Have to Be This Way,’ was the headline of the lead article, published in The Time with the cover page ‘India in Crisis.’ All Indians also believe the same, as the current reality is shown virtually live in TV news channels daily, with experts commenting on the same.

Ironically, many in the country’s leadership still remain in a ‘denial mode’, even when the country records globally highest number, ever – over 402,110 daily new Covid-19 cases with 3,688 daily deaths, on April 30, 2021. One can also gauge how grim the situation is from the example of the US alert to its citizens in India. It says, ‘access to medical care is becoming severely limited because of a surge in Covid-19 infections and those wishing to leave the country should take advantage of available commercial transportation options.’

Notably, when most Indians, including the President of India, were taking pride in the country’s ‘Aatma-Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan,’ especially in the Covid-19 vaccine area, during the pandemic, the stark reality appeared to be quite different. Pandemic demonstrated that each country is, in fact, interdependent. One may not acknowledge it in the days of hubris. However, when a crisis, like Covid 2.0 strikes the nation hard and interestingly – not unannounced, as many experts write, the reality dawns. This is also a reality that India as a nation could not adequately prepare itself for Covid 2.0 onslaught, even over a yearlong Covid 1.0 pandemic.

Nonetheless, India now needs global help, almost for everything – in the prevailing calamity – Oxygen, drugs like, Remdesivir – and vaccines, besides many others. Quite expectedly, witnessing the Covid 2.0 tragedy in India ‘Aid (also) pours in from the world to counter India’s Covid-19 second wave.’ Alongside, along with Indian media, even foreign media reports, ‘Bodies piling up at crematoriums: Record death toll may hide extent of India’s COVID-19 crisis.’

Amid Covid crisis, most countries in the world, including the United Kingdom, the United States,Israel and even India’s neighboring country - Bhutan focused on the mass Covid vaccination drive – at a blistering pace, to create a herd immunity. In this article, I shall explore the drivers and barriers for India to achieve a similar goal, soon.

Current developments with vaccine in India:

The latest development is – after a protracted hesitation, the Government of India opened ‘Covid-19 vaccination for all above 18 years of age,’ effective May 01, 2021. However, not so good news is, this happened at a time when the country is experiencing a Covid-19 vaccine shortage even for all adults above 45 years of age. Believing that government has taken this decision without enough advance preparation, experts warn, India is likely to face extreme Covid vaccine shortage from May 1.

They express concern: ‘India is running out of vaccines just as the new wave of Covid-19 infections batters the country, complicating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to inoculate the nation’s workforce while threatening to drag out the world’s worst healthcare crisis.’

India rejected ‘emergency use’ of imported Pfizer and other vaccines, unlike other countries:

Some decisions by Indian vaccine expert panel also delayed more vaccine availability in the country for ‘emergency use,’ sooner. For example, Reuters reported on February 05, 2021, ‘Pfizer drops India vaccine application after regulator seeks local trial.’ The Company had applied to the DCGI for a waiver of a local trial for importing its mRNA vaccine in India.

Similarly, as reported on February 25, 2021, ‘Expert panel seeks safety data for Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine before emergency use nod,’ in India. Ironically, it was again rejected on April 01, 2021. However, facing the fierce Covid.2.0 wave Sputnik V vaccine is now being imported from Russia. Similarly, as reported on April 30, 2021, ‘Pfizer begins exporting U.S.-made COVID-19 vaccine to Mexico.’ Pfizer has already exported 10 million doses to Mexico.

In the quagmire of indecision, late decision and other non-life saving priorities are omnipresent:

Many Indian and overseas experts opined that valuable time was lost to have more vaccines in India, by now. This is because, amid a wrenching surge in infections and deaths, on April 14, 2021 – ultimately, India agreed to fast-track vaccine approvals for ‘emergency use,’ without local trial. These are now applicable to all those Covid vaccines that have already been authorized by ‘drug regulators in the US, UK, European Union and Japan or cleared by the WHO, without having to conduct a local bridging trial.

The above developments, I reckon, gave rise to two core issues in vaccinating the Indian population of above 18 years of age – at a ‘blistering pace,’ as happened or is happening in countries, like the UK or the US.

Whereas, for speedy mass vaccination wealthy governments took a quick decision to stock up on COVID-19 shots from Pfizer and Moderna Inc, because of their extremely high efficacy. More so, when safety concerns and production problems temporarily sidelined vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc and Johnson & Johnson.

Two core issues for a speedy vaccination process in India:

No domain experts in the world doubt that mass vaccination is India’s Covid-19 escape route from the prevailing health care massacre. However, arising out of the above developments, successful implementation of Covid vaccination process  on the ground, making it available and affordable to all, poses a giant challenge. Thus, to effectively address the two core issues, with the quality of speed that it deserves, finding answers to the following questions are critical:

  1. How to add speed to the vaccination process?
  2. How to avoid different pricing for the same vaccine for the Central Government, the State Governments and the Private Hospitals? This will give a choice to the population for speedy vaccination, removing many personal apprehensions involving the entire process.  

Let me give an example, each of the most recent quagmire related to each one of the above issues.

All vaccination centers in Mumbai were shut for three days for shortages:

Reuters reported on April 30, 2021 carrying a headline, ‘Indian states run out of COVID-19 vaccines; nationwide inoculation delayed.’ It added, several Indian states have run out of COVID-19 vaccines a day before a planned widening of a nationwide inoculation drive. Interestingly, quoting Indian authorities it elaborated: ‘All vaccination centers in India’s financial capital Mumbai were shut for three days starting Friday due to a shortage of vaccines, as the country posted another record daily rise in coronavirus cases.’ The same saga can be witnessed in the national capital of India. ‘Don’t queue up outside Covid-19 vaccination centers tomorrow, the stock will arrive in 1-2 days,’ urged the Chief Minister of Delhi.

The Government allowed Covishield and Covaxin price increase amid pandemic:

Covishield and Covaxin were being purchased by the central government at a price of Rs. 150 per/dose. While announcing Covid vaccination eligibility to all Indians above 18 years of age – despite vaccine shortages, the government allowed the two Indian vaccine manufacturers to increase the same vaccine prices – for direct supply to the state governments and private hospitals.

The manufacturers lapped up this decision and increased the vaccine prices by several times, amid catastrophic Covid 2.0 pandemic. For example, for state governments the Covishield price was raised to Rs.400/per dose and Rs.600/per dose – for Covaxin. However, facing severe criticism from all quarters the prices were revised to Rs 300 (Covishield) and Rs.400 (Covaxin). Interestingly, still the price increases were double or even more from the initial prices of Rs.150/per dose.  Interestingly, one manufacturer even boasted  this so called ‘price reduction’ from their initial humongous price increases, as a ‘philanthropic gesture’. Interesting indeed!

A hidden solution within Supreme Court questions to the Center:

While hearing a Suo Moto case in connection with the ongoing Covid 2.0 calamity in the country, the Supreme Court of India also took note of the difference in Covid vaccine prices for the Centre and the state governments. It observed Covid vaccine manufacturing is publicly funded, hence are public goods – these are ultimately meant for the people of India. At the same time, the apex court asked some of the following profound questions to the central government on Covid 2.0 management in the country:

  • Why is the center not following the national immunization program policy in its Covid-19 vaccination drive where the Centre will buy all vaccines from the manufacturers?
  • How much investment has the Centre made into the vaccine companies and given advances in the last year?
  • What has been the financial contribution by the Union govt in research etc. in the development of vaccines?
  • How will the Centre ensure registration for vaccines for illiterate people and those without internet access as registration through Co-Win is mandatory in the third phase of vaccination?
  • Will one state get priority access over another in getting the vaccines?
  • How will the Centre ensure equity by private vaccine manufacturers when it is buying only 50 percent of the doses?
  • Has the center considered invoking Section 92 of the patents act and issue compulsory licenses so that drugs can be manufactured while the royalty is sorted?
  • Why are we paying so much for this vaccine for which AstraZeneca has set at a far lower price to the US citizens?

One may possibly find a hidden solution to the question of invoking Section 92 of the Indian Patent Act (IPA 2005) to address some critical Covid vaccine related issues in India.

Is invoking section of IPA 2005 a near-term solution?

As many would know, Section 92 of the Indian Patents Act is a special provision enabling the Central Government to issue Compulsory Licenses for the manufacture of patented drugs in a public health emergency. Section 100 of the IPA enables the Central Government to use patented inventions for government purposes. Curiously, the Supreme Court of India has, reportedly, also observed: “This is an exact case where we should go for compulsory licensing. This is a situation of Public Health Emergency.”

Just to recap, on October 02, 2021, India and South Africa had proposed at the WTO about an IP waiver for Covid-19 drugs and vaccines that could help resolve the urgent issues of access and affordability to these products. It has also been reported: ‘Richer members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) blocked a push by over 80 developing countries on Wednesday to waive patent rights in an effort to boost production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations.’

Although, U.S. Trade Representative has recently met with Pfizer and AstraZeneca to discuss this proposed IP waiver for Covid vaccines and drugs, what stops India to invoke Section 92 and 100 of its own Patent Act even during this seemingly uncontrollable Covid 2.0 pandemic?

The April 06, 2021 article of the Observer Research Foundation aptly epitomized the need of the hour. It articulated: ‘As the pandemic continues to rage, countries collectively have to find innovative ways to not just increase the production of vaccines, but also ensure their timely distribution at affordable prices.” Such an initiative may encourage more manufacturers in India to manufacture enough Covid vaccine, facilitating speedy inoculation to Indians and at the same time the government can make its price affordable for all concerned.

Conclusion:

The question, therefore, arises: Is India’s exit to the Covid 2.0 maze now visible? But, before arriving at any possible conclusion in this regard, one may try to address, at least, the following two critical questions:

  • Can Covid vaccines be reverse-engineered by domestic pharma industry without inventors sharing ‘Know-How’?
  • Can the IP waiver by the WTO or invocation of section 92 and 100 of IPA 2005 by India, legally mandate vaccine developers, like AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech or Johnson & Johnson, to share know-how with others, if they do not want to do so?

The resolution of the above issues won’t happen in a jiffy – at this stage. It may take more time. So, I reckon, will be the search for a permanent exit to India’s Covid 2.0 management maze, to avoid a similar strike by Covid 3.0, if or as and when it will come. Thus, till all adult Indians get vaccinated, each one of us must comply with Covid appropriate behavior responsibly, to save ourselves, our families, neighborhood, and above all our own nation.

By: Tapan J. Ray     

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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