COVID pandemic and vaccine shortage: There is more to this than meets the eye

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A news report titled Who destroyed India’s vaccine self-sufficiency?” published by Business standard on 17 May, credits the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court for wanting to know while hearing a PIL earlier this month “why India had to rely on just two private domestic manufacturers–Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech–to produce Covid-19 vaccines,” when the country was a global leader both in production and export of vaccines.

The BS story goes on to point out and we quote: 

“India’s self-sufficiency in vaccine production was destroyed one and half decades ago under the UPA-I government. Anbumani Ramadoss, then the Union Health Minister in Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government effectively moved vaccine manufacture and government procurement to the private sector. In January 2008, the licences of three premier public sector vaccine manufacturers were suspended citing non-compliance with WHO good manufacturing practices (GMP). These public sector units (PSUs) were: Central Research Institute (CRI), Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh, BCG Vaccine Laboratory (BCGVL) in Guindy and Pasteur Institute of India (PII), Coonoor, both in Tamil Nadu.” (unquote)

After the license of 3 PSUs had been suspended, it has been pointed out that ex-bureaucrat and member of the Planning Commission, S P Shukla, had moved the Supreme Court against the government’s decision. His contention was that the government must preserve its role in vaccine manufacture and had warned that erosion of the PSU’s vaccine-making capabilities would threaten India’s health security and bio-security. Notices were sent by the apex court which eventually did not overturn the government’s decision.

Now we would like to focus on a particular input also shared in public domain by Business Standard  through its exclusive report, and we quote:

In UPA-II, Ghulam Nabi Azad as Health Minister, tried to undo the damage. In 2010, the licences of the three PSUs were revived on the recommendations of the Javid Chowdhury Committee which held the suspension of their licences incorrect, illegal and flawed. About Rs. 49 crore was allocated for the revival of CRI, Kasauli. By 2016, government funding had made two of the PSUs GMP compliant, despite this, they did not recieve any government orders as India’s vaccine procurement had moved definitely to the private sector. So the damage wrought by UPA-1 persisted under the Modi Government.” (Unquote)

This one excerpt from the story reveals more than what it apparently tries to hide by stating “the PSUs did not recieve any government orders as vaccine procurement had moved definitely to the private sector.” Also the responsibility of NDA-1 and NDA-2 has been brushed aside by adding: “So the damage wrought by UPA-1 persisted under the Modi Government”.

Notwithstanding the causes listed, including the role of Ramadoss, who has been depicted as villain in chief in this matter, what about the failure to create a balance and divert a proportion of vaccine procurement to the public sector even after Rs 49 crore had been allocated for revival of CRI, Kasauli. By 2016 two PSUs, including CRI, had become GMP compliant. This one input is sufficient to conclude that Modi Government also deserves to be blamed because it just did not fail, after 2016 but is also responsible for letting down the nation all these years. Failure means lack of success, here, in this case, what has happened is that the concerned Ministry and officials presided over a system that was hell bent upon favouring the vested interests and ensuring the PSUs remain dormant despite pumping of huge sums from the exchequer to ensure public sector continues to play its role in vaccine production. The concerned bureaucrats are accountable and deserve to be hauled over the coals. 

Click here for rejoinder to the BS report by Anmumani Ramadoss

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