Since the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) formed the government in Tamil Nadu, it has put a lot of pressure on the Union government to increase vaccine supply to the state. As and when pressure from Tamil Nadu increases, the Centre slightly speeds up vaccine supply, otherwise it recedes.
Similarly, after the recent meeting of state health secretary J Radhakrishnan with V K Paul, chairperson of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19, assurance was given that 15.87 lakh doses of COVID-19 vaccine will be fast-tracked between July 10 and 12.
However, whatever level of pressure is mounted from the state, the Centre can provide only a limited number of vaccines because the Centre does not have sufficient stocks to increase supply. Experts have pointed out that the Union government did not properly plan for mass inoculation and thereby, the vaccination drive is happening at a snail’s pace in the country. The states that put pressure get some extra doses, which makes little difference.
Though an additional vaccine Sputnik V has entered the scene, besides Covaxin and Covishield, it is not a major contributor because its availability is quite low.
With such limited supply of vaccine from private producers and there being no takers for the government-owned HLL Lifecare Ltd integrated vaccine complex (IVC) in Chengalpet, the Centre is still not considering Tamil Nadu’s proposal of leasing out the IVC to the state government and scaling up vaccine production.
CONSTANT PRESSURE FROM STATE
In the midst of a strong wave of COVID-19 infections, the central government modified the vaccination policy in April 2021 and withdrew its responsibility allowing the states to procure 25% of available vaccines from May 1 onwards. After one month of chaos caused by this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the decision and announced that the Centre would procure 75% of all COVID-19 vaccines and allocate them to the states free of cost, from June 1. However, the Union government has been unable to provide adequate supplies to the states.
Inevitably, demand from the states has been high and the Centre is only providing a portion of it. Tamil Nadu health minister Ma Subramanian said the state has the capacity to administer vaccines to seven-eight lakh people a day and more than two crore doses of COVID-19 vaccines in a month, but supply-side constraints prevent it from vaccinating people faster.
“The Centre should ideally provide a roadmap on vaccine production and distribution making it convenient for the states. It should be part of the openness and transparency process. In fact, it should have a public health commission that looks at the entire process,” said S Krishnaswamy, office bearer of All India People’s Science Network.
Tamil Nadu received only 5.27 lakh vaccine doses last week. At this pace, it would take several years for the entire population of the state to be vaccinated. Less than 1.7 crore doses (including first and second doses) have been administered till date in the state, which has a population of 7 crore.
Pressure from the state government has not receded even though the Centre is not able to provide adequately. Tamil Nadu is demanding that the Union government “correct the inadequate allotment in the past”, i.e. given that vaccine hesitancy was very high in Tamil Nadu, the state was slow to pick up with the COVID-19 vaccination.
Besides pushing for more vaccines in his first meeting with PM Modi, Chief Minister MK Stalin has regularly been writing to the Union government representatives to make vaccines more accessible. Ma Subramanian had also scheduled a meeting with former Union Health minister Harsh Vardhan, but overnight the cabinet minister was changed.
NEW VACCINES, BUT SUPPLY AN ISSUE
A private clinic in Coimbatore has announced COVID-19 vaccination drive for the public using Sputnik V vaccine doses from July 12 onwards. Three weeks ago the private chain of Apollo Hospitals introduced Sputnik V vaccine in Chennai.
Though three COVID-19 vaccines are approved at present in India, and Moderna’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine is also said to likely hit the market soon. However, it is unlikely to make a difference if such vaccines are not available in large quantities for mass inoculation.
Moreover, the number of people financially capable and willing to pay for vaccination is a minuscule population, as is evident with the reserve stock of vaccines with the private hospitals. As of July 12, private hospitals in Tamil Nadu had around 6 lakh doses in stock.
The state’s request to decrease supply to private hospitals from 25% to 10% has also been turned down. The Centre has told the state that if the private sector in Tamil Nadu does not use 25% of vaccines, it will be allotted to private hospitals in other states.
Krishnaswamy said, “the government is exploring importing more vaccines, but what about increasing production of the existing Covaxin and Covishield? Besides opening public sector IVCs, they should also be considering private biologics for vaccine production; there are 20-odd private companies capable of it,” said Krishnaswamy.
NO TAKERS FOR VACCINE COMPLEX
After much pressure from the civil society, the Union government floated a tender on March 27 inviting bids from private players to take over the Integrated Vaccine Complex Facility (IVC) at Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, to produce COVID-19 vaccines. However, it is more than three months since the tender was floated, and the Government of India enterprise HLL Lifecare Ltd has apparently still not received any bids.
Though there are no private takers for running the vaccine complex, the Centre has still not considered the Tamil Nadu government’s proposal. On May 26, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting the Union government to hand over the IVC on lease to the state government.
The state with a population of 7 crore has administered 1.7 crore doses. So far, only 28 lakh people, meaning only 4%, has got both doses. The country and the state have a long way to go in inoculating people against the COVID-19 infection even as the possibility of a third wave looms large.