Govt should include pvt sector in vaccine roll-out
Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has poured cold water on hopes of an early roll-out of vaccines by the private sector in India. He said on Monday that approvals for general use rather than emergency use were not currently foreseen. This is a mistake, and will hold back the control of the pandemic as well as the country’s return to normal economic functioning. Mr Vardhan’s reasons have little logical foundation. He argued that if the government managed the vaccine roll-out, then there would be less worry about “some wrong product reaching the market”. If this is a complaint about the quality of the vaccines, then it is hard to see how whether it is a private or public vaccine makes a difference. Certainly, questions about the indemnification of vaccine companies are important — but unless the government plans to never have private sector sales at all, there is no reason to decide on that issue later when it should be done now.
It is not as if the government is doing particularly well on the roll-out so far. Phase III of the roll-out — when those most vulnerable to mortality if they develop symptoms of Covid-19 are to be inoculated — has not even started. Indeed, proper plans for it have not even been drawn up. The previous phases are running at perhaps 50-60 per cent of effectiveness against their plans. In other words, more than six weeks after regulatory approval for two vaccines was handed out, not a single Indian in the vulnerable age groups has as yet been vaccinated. There is widespread doubt and confusion as to how to sign up to get on a vaccine list, with various state governments and municipalities issuing conflicting instructions. The Co-Win app has not been particularly impressive so far, and there is every reason for fear that it will not be able to handle the registration and tracking of the hundreds of millions of Indians in Phase III. The manufacturers, particularly Serum Institute of India, are producing vaccines faster than India can hand them out. All these points suggest any responsible government would be begging the private sector for help, rather than turning up its nose.
Early approval and quick contracting are essential to get a private sector pipeline up and working swiftly. Multiple players in the pharma industry are willing to put their installations to produce approved vaccines. The sooner they get the go-ahead, the quicker these vital investments can be made. It is unclear, other than a desire for bureaucratic control, why the government is seeking to reduce India’s potential vaccine-manufacturing capacity in this manner. In general, it is a bad idea to dis-incentivise private investment at this time through slow approval. But it is even worse when timely private investment in the vaccine chain is the only hope to get India to herd immunity in reasonable time. The government must re-evaluate its strategy and allow private participation at the earliest. Many firms in the private sector are willing to pay for their employees. Expanding the vaccination programme will help strengthen economic recovery. A delay will only increase costs for the economy.