“Gunahgar samjhe ki duniya tujhe, bas inti bhi zyada safai na de: The world will conclude that you are guilty, if you give so many explanations to show your innocence.” This simple couplet came to my mind while reading the press release issued by PIB on May 27, titled, “Myths and Facts on India’s Vaccination Process”. The government’s adamancy in winning the publicity war even when the case is indefensible leads responsible technocrats, like Dr Vinod Paul, member (health) and chair of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid 19 (NEGVAC), to author such press releases.
Dr Paul lists out seven “myths” regarding the critique of the government’s vaccination policy, and bravely sets out to give the correct “facts”. In doing so he ends up only further revealing how highly incompetent the government has been on this front.
Let us take up the seven points raised by Dr Paul. The first is “that the Centre is not doing enough to buy vaccines from abroad”. His defence is that “buying vaccines internationally is not similar to buying ‘off the shelf’ items”, and that “vaccines are in limited supply globally”. Thank you very much Dr Paul for educating us on these simplicities, but the question is, given these obvious constraints, could not have the government done better?
The answer is an emphatic yes. With the same constraints, the United States has purchased enough vaccines to inoculate its population three times over, the EU countries have done much the same, Canada has bought five times of what it needs, and Japan four times. These countries had foresight. They were proactive in anticipating the needs of their population. The US even went to the extent of booking orders with pharmaceutical companies even when the trials were still on. Even now, the extra stocks with these countries are available for bulk purchase. Contrast our record. We gave away from what precious little we had, and did not aggressively buy in time for our own needs.
“Myth” two is that the government has not approved vaccines available globally. Dr Paul’s defence is that “no application of any foreign manufacturer for approval is pending with the drugs controller”. This, in fact, is the real lament. Why did the government not move fast enough with foreign vaccine manufacturers well in time so that by now applications would have been cleared or were “pending”, and production was on the anvil? To say, in a bureaucratic way, that nothing is pending with us, is no defence for the absence of proactively seeking out such collaborations before the second wave was upon us.
“Myth” three is that “the Centre is not doing enough to ramp up domestic production of vaccines”. This “myth” is so much a fact that it barely needs rebuttal. It is now in the public domain how Serum Institute of India (SII) sought financial assistance from the government to ramp up production, but that this vital input was not provided till as late as April 2021, when we were in the throes of the second wave. Nor was Bharat Biotech, the producers of Covaxin, encouraged to expand production through adequate funding, and nor was the IPR of their vaccine shared with other indigenous pharma companies to boost total output. All such efforts are being made only now, after the mayhem and suffering we have witnessed during the second wave. Competent governments work in advance, not in hindsight.
“Myth” four is that “the Centre should invoke compulsory licensing”. Dr Paul says that “this is not a very attractive option since it is not a ‘formula’ that matters, but active partnership, training of human resources, sourcing of raw materials and highest levels of bio-safety labs which is required”. True, but everybody knows that. The real challenge was to use diplomacy at the right time to persuade foreign pharma companies to part with their technology and know-how, and obtain, either indigenously or otherwise, the material required to make the vaccines. Our foreign minister, Dr Jaishankar, has only now gone to the US for this purpose. What was the government doing for all the months before? Compulsory licensing, and the waiving of patents is permissible under the TRIPS agreement during emergencies, so it is not a question of whether it is an “attractive” option or not.
“Myths” number five and six deal with the policy being adopted towards the states. The argument is so laboured that it begs disbelief. It is absolutely clear to anyone that a system where the Centre and each state separately bid for global vaccines in short supply, is a prescription for anarchy. The lame argument that health is a state subject does not dilute the express assumption of powers by the Centre when a national emergency has been declared since March 2020 under the National Disaster Management Act. The second argument that states themselves wanted powers to procure vaccines does not hold water either. Firstly, many states are clear that they never asked for such powers. Secondly, even if some states did, surely the Centre is duty bound to override their requests in the larger interest of central procurement, which is the only rational policy to follow. Passing the buck to the states is a cynical cover up for a total abdication of responsibility, and clearly against the provisions of the National Disaster Management Act.
“Myth” seven is that the “Centre is not taking any steps to vaccinate children”. Dr Paul’s defence that “no country in the world is giving vaccines to children” may be literally correct, but it ignores the fact that many countries have announced dates when they plan to do so. The basic truth is that when adults are running from pillar to post to get vaccinated, there are just not enough doses for children.
The government has, quite simply, been found starkly wanting on the issue of vaccines. That is the fact. The myth is that there can be a defence of the indefensible.