Apprehensions on the time of availability notwithstanding, equitable access to Covid vaccines for all, remain the best hope to leash the deadly virus, as the pandemic overwhelms the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) ‘Coronavirus Update 37’ of October 06, 2020, as of October 02, 2020, there are 42 COVID-19 candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation of which 10 in Phase III trials.
Recently, the article, published in the Harvard Business Review on April 02, 2020, also flagged this critical area – ‘A Covid-19 Vaccine Will Need Equitable, Global Distribution.’ The paper highlighted: ‘The time to prepare for globally distributing a Covid-19 vaccine in a way that is effective and equitable is now. It will have a long-term payoff by helping to prevent future pandemics, which scientists predict will be more common as the earth’s climate warms.’
Even Bill Gates’ article, published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) on February 28, 2020, expressed a similar apprehension. The article is titled - ‘Responding to Covid-19 – A Once-in-a-Century Pandemic?’ Gates also articulated: “During a pandemic, vaccines and antivirals can’t simply be sold to the highest bidder. They should be available and affordable for people who are at the heart of the outbreak and in greatest need. Not only is such distribution the right thing to do, it’s also the right strategy for short-circuiting transmission and preventing future pandemics.”
He too urged all concerned to ensure that during a pandemic, vaccines and antivirals aren’t ‘simply be sold to the highest bidder.’ On the contrary, these should be made available, affordable and accessible to all. ‘Not only is such distribution the right thing to do, it’s also the right strategy for short-circuiting transmission and preventing future pandemics,’ he asserted.
Does any authority pay heed to these suggestions? The question remains unanswered. Interestingly, on September 17, 2020 by a Press Release, Oxfam International reported, ‘leading wealthy nations representing just 13 percent of the world’s population have already cornered more than half (51 percent) of the promised doses of Covid-19 vaccine candidates.’ This is regardless of where these vaccines are manufactured, including India.
These prompt one to wonder, ‘Would India’s possible rise as the world’s third largest vaccine manufacturer benefit all Indians, with affordable and equitable access to Covid prevention shots? In this article, I shall dwell in this area.
India emerges as the world’s third largest Covid vaccine producer:
According to August 24, 2020 edition of the Nature publication, if all of the frontrunner candidates of Covid vaccines are approved, more than 10 billion doses could be available by the end of 2021. Most of these vaccines will be made in the North America and Europe. The top Covid vaccine manufacturing countries are estimated to be the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, India, Norway and France, the report highlights.
However, wealthy countries have already struck deals to buy more than two billion doses of Coronavirus vaccine in a scramble that could leave limited supplies in the coming year. For example, as the above Nature article indicates, publicly announced estimated capacity to 2021 of Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, is 2.94 billion. Interestingly Serum Institute of India (SII) signed an agreement to manufacture over I billion doses in 2021.
Whereas, another report of September 29, 2020, stated that SII will make available 200 million doses by 2021, at $3 dose to a group of at least 62 ‘low- and middle-income countries (LMIC)’ that includes India. This arrangement does not make clear how many of the 200 million doses will be made available in India. Curiously, SII reportedly, is also one of the global partners for the production of Britain’s Covid-19 vaccine on a large scale, once it gains regulatory approval.
Growing ‘vaccine nationalism’ needs to be prevented:
Thus, if one looks at the macro picture, a small group of rich nations, representing just 13 percent of the global population has bought 51 percent of the supply of leading Covid-19 vaccine contenders, according to the above Press Release of Oxfam International.
Many public health experts have expressed grave concern on such developments. They have also articulated in multiple forums that the world is not going to get rid of the pandemic until it gets rid of Covid-19 from everywhere. Terming this approach vaccine nationalism, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) urged all concerned, at his August 18, 2020 briefing that this needs to be prevented by all, urgently.
No clarity yet, on whether the vaccine will be free for all Indians:
Although, there is no reported ‘vaccine nationalism’ in India, thus far, for understandable reasons, there isn’t any clarity, either, on whether Covid vaccines will be free for equitable access to all in India. As reported on October 27, 2020, Dr. V.K. Paul of NITI Aayog, who heads the Centre’s expert committee on vaccines confirmed this by saying:
“We’ll have more clarity in the weeks ahead when trial data from the ongoing trials (phase 3) of the Serum Institute of India (which is testing the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine) is available. The success of it and the other candidates will determine the availability and the dosage required and then we can discuss financing.”
Interestingly, free Covid vaccination for all in Bihar, has featured in ruling party’s the election manifestos, if they win the recent state assembly poll. This raises a doubt for the common man, whether or not this vaccination will be free to all in other states, as well, where such promises are not being made.
Ambiguity also on how much it will cost to the nation:
As on date, avoidable ambiguity prevails in many areas of Covid-19 vaccination process in India, for various reasons. For example, ‘Will India have Rs 80,000 crore for Covid-19 vaccine,’ asked the top vaccine maker in India, on September 27, 2020. Whereas, as reported on October 23, 2020, ‘the government has set aside about Rs 50,000 crore ($7 billion) to vaccinate Indian citizens.’
The same report also wrote, the Coronavirus vaccine, once available, will be distributed under a special Covid-19 immunization program. The Centre will procure the vaccine directly to make it available to the ‘priority groups’ free-of-charge through the existing network of states and districts. States have been asked not to chart separate pathways of procurement. This is expected to coveraround 25 Crore people by July next year, according to the Union Health Minister of India.
This also appeared in the Bloomberg/Quint article of October 17, 2020. It reported, India is identifying 300 million people who will receive the initial dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Priority will be given to workers in high-risk sectors such as police, health care, sanitation, elderly people and those with co-morbidities. The beneficiaries of vaccine in the first phase will receive an estimated 600 million doses and implementation plan aims to cover over 23 percent of the population.
Assuming that Rs. 50,000 Crore will be the vaccination cost for only 23 percent of the Indian population, what will it cost to nation to vaccinate 100 percent of the population against Covid? How will rest of Indians get access to Covid vaccination? Will the citizens be inoculated sans any out of expenditure for the same? If so, why free Covid vaccination has been promised only for Bihar, in the recent Assembly election, only in case the ruling party returns to power, as stated above?
Humongous logistics challenge for India:
Even if, India plans to administer Covid-19 vaccine to just 23 percent of the population, covering its high-risk population, across the country, in the first half of 202, it will involve 400-500 million doses. Will SII be able to deliver so many doses by June 2020? However, maintaining uninterrupted ‘cold chain’, in the entire logistics process – including local transportation and storage, wherever required, till these are administered to people, will be a humongous task for India.
While the required storage temperature of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is -20 degree Celsius, some of the most promising candidates, such as, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccines need to be stored at as low as -80 degrees Celsius, till administered.
Covid vaccination cost is not just the cost of a vaccine:
To vaccinate 1.3 billion people of India, the Government needs to train in advance, a large number of health workers to accomplish the task. Alongside, the supply chain, including a demanding and uninterrupted countrywide ‘cold chain’ will also need to factor in other costs. These will include, availability of ancillary items like syringes, among others. The complexity of vaccine logistics further increases manifold, as 70 percent of the country’s population lives in rural India. Thus, the net outlay for Covid vaccination will be much more than a vaccine cost.
What happens, if these are not achieved with military precision, much before vaccine manufacturing commences? In that case, I reckon, it is quite likely that efficacious COVID -19 vaccines may not be made accessible even to 23 percent of the high-risk people, such as police, health care and sanitation staff, elderly people and those with serious co-morbidities.
The economic, social and health care concern over Covid pandemic continues in India. As of November 01, 2020 morning, India recorded a staggering figure of 8,184,082 of Coronavirus cases with 122,149 deaths. During this health crisis, among several other critical areas, India is also still learning – the hard way, how fragile is its public health care infrastructure. Covid pandemic has possibly caused the worst ever health care catastrophe in the country, due to years of negligence – that continues even today.
Besides above legacy issues, meager deployment of resources, low overall health awareness for Covid, inadequate number of health care personnel, insufficient Covid testing kits to detect the virus and prevent it from spreading, is still playing havoc. Moreover, many epidemiologists continue to suggest that India’s real infection rates are far higher.
In this setting, if, as and when subsequent Covid waves will strike, the number of cases is likely to grow exponentially – again. Thus, inoculating the entire population with Covid-19 vaccines is the most desirable way out, for India to prevent this health calamity from lingering too long. As Mark Feinberg, head of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York City had said in the August 24, 2020 edition of Nature publication: “We’re not going to get rid of the pandemic until we get rid of it everywhere.”
Here comes the importance of equitable access to Covid vaccination for all in India. Although, a number of international organizations, including the W.H.O and Gavi, are working hard to reduce this threat, the concern over inequitable access to Covid vaccines, still remains a real one. Intriguingly, despite India being positioned as the world’s third largest Covid-19 vaccine producer, no one is still sure due to multiple reasons, whether all Indians will benefit from it – probably not even the Government of India.
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.