Chennai: Long queues, even in rural parts of Tamil Nadu, are strong signs of decreasing hesitancy over COVID-19 vaccine. However, the shortage of vaccines in the state, which is being highlighted time and again, has failed to evoke any meaningful response from the Union government.
With vaccine manufacturing being carried out only by two private entities -- Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute of India -- the shortage is no surprise. Now, there are reports that two public sector undertakings (PSUs) are set to manufacture Covaxin from September after a deal with Bharat Biotech.
Though the Union government is more inclined to procure vaccines from these two private entities by paying huge amounts in advance, it is ironical that the Integrated Vaccine Complex (IVC), operated by the HLL Biotech Limited (HBL), is lying idle for years, for want of funds, a reflection of the policies pursued by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government that have weighed in favour of private entities, while PSUs are left to disintegrate.
In fact, the Union government has not even responded to the request of the Tamil nadu government to lease the facility for manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines to bridge the increasing demand-supply gap. Meanwhile, the global tender by the state government for supplying vaccines failed to receive a single bid, forcing the government to go for another tender announcement.
‘OPERATE IVC TO MANUFACTURE VACCINES’
The demand for vaccines has shot up after the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic hit the country hard. Tamil Nadu also suffered from oxygen shortage and fresh infections peaked at 36,184 cases on May 21. Subsequently, the state government demanded higher allocation of vaccines, but to no avail.
In this backdrop, the fact that the IVC in the HBL unit in Chengalpattu remains idle, thanks to the ‘hostile’ approach of the Union government, is making matters worse.
“Three of the five units in the IVC can be used for manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines. What is required is Rs 300 crore for small changes in the existing set up and technology transfer”, said D Thomas Franco, joint convenor of People First, a forum for saving PSUs from privatisation, among others.
The forum accused the Union government of allocating more funds for the two private sector companies for vaccine manufacturing, while 12 public sector undertakings (PSU) capable of manufacturing vaccines have received a raw deal.
“The Union government is bound to ensure free vaccination for all the citizens. But the 12 PSUs capable of manufacturing vaccines have received little attention from the Centre, which is allocating crores of rupees in advance to vaccinate while not considering the PSUs and IVC”, Franco added.
STATE GOVT DEMANDS LEASE OF IVC
The inordinate delay in operationalising the IVC was highlighted by the trade unions, Left parties and civil society organisations. Several members of Parliament have written to the Union health ministry seeking immediate intervention, with former CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member T K Rengarajan writing to the ministry during the first wave itself. Several DMK and CPI(M) MPs have joined the issue now.
People First and scores of eminent citizens from Tamil Nadu have also written to the officials concerned on utilising IVC, which houses world class facilities.
“We wrote to the chief minister on the demands and immediately the state government requested the Union government to lease the facility or make the state government a shareholder of the IVC. The CM also paid a visit to the facility and reiterated the demand for leasing the facility as well” Franco said.
The minister for industries also visited Delhi and met Union minister concerned with the plea, but reportedly the Centre has not responded.
‘UNION MINISTER HAILED FACILITY’
The IVC facility is strangled for funds with the staff not being paid salaries and advised to go on leave. This is despite the fact that Union health minister Harsh Vardhan visited the facility in January 2021 and had words of praise for it.
“The integrated vaccine complex at HLL biotech campus in Chengalpattu is a 'Project of National Importance'. Finally had the privilege of visiting this magnificent facility dedicated to strengthening the vaccine & health Security of the country”, the minister had tweeted.
Responding to the visit of the minister, Franco said: “The minister had promised to allocate funds for the immediate functioning of the IVC. Almost five months are over and no action has been taken so far”.
The MedCity, another facility adjoining the IVC, also requires attention, People First has demanded.
“The MedCity, two units in IVC and other vaccine manufacturing units in Tamil Nadu should be made operational to achieve the goal of self-sufficiency in vaccine production as proclaimed by the government of India. India can again become the largest exporter of vaccines by doing so”, Franco added.