Is India running out of COVID vaccines? Whose fault is it? And what are the reasons?
With daily COVID-19 infections averaging 90000 this month, India is arguably at a worse stage than last year. On top of that, the country has been facing vaccine shortages in more than a dozen states. The BJP government at the Centre is refuting such claims and criticizing state governments for not doing their jobs and spreading misinformation.
India’s vaccination drive is the worlds biggest. it began on 16 January and aims to cover 250 million people by July. Initially limited to healthcare workers and frontline staff, it has been since extended in stages to people above 60; then to those between 45 and 59 who have other illnesses, and now to those above 45.
On Thursday more than 25 vaccination centres in Mumbai alone were shut down. Vaccination drives in other parts of the state were similarly affected said Rajesh Tope, Health Minister of Maharashtra. The local government says its current stock of 1.5 million doses will last only for three days. Vaccine shortages have also been reported in Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.
There have been primarily 2 reasons for these shortages. First is the overconfident production capacity claims by Indian vaccine makers. According to Oommen C Kurian of the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank, there is a “mismatch between the claimed production capacity of Indian vaccine makers and the actually produced doses over the last four months or so”.
Vaccine manufacturers in India are making around 60% of the world’s vaccines. But Serum Institute of India, which makes the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, known locally as Covishield, has said its production capacity was “very stressed”. SII had claimed that in January that it would increase its production to 100 million doses a month very soon. But in a recent statement, it said that meeting the target before the end of June will not be possible.
Experts say the vaccine shortages in parts of India could be because of supply bottlenecks. Vaccine makers had also possibly “oversold” their production capacities in a bid to take orders from all over the world. “As the cases rise and vaccine hesitancy falls, the demand for doses will increase. We have to plan better,” says a senior official, who preferred to remain unnamed. AIIMS Chief Dr Randeep Guleria said in a statement, “(on manufacturing capacity)… something the manufacturer has to do. They were aware of the (need to) supply not only India but the rest of the world. To say now they will start manufacturing… demand was always going to be huge. Didn’t need rocket science to tell you that even six months ago,”.
The vaccine maker SII has also said that a shortage of finances is impeding the ramping up of production of the vaccines. “Serum is selling a dose of the vaccine at $2 to India’s government and “this rate is not enough to sustain further expansion,” says Adar Poonawalla. Poonawalla is seeking $400m (£290m) in government assistance or bank finance to invest in expanding capacity. Dr Guleria replied to the statement by saying that, “… can’t advise on finances but am sure they would have been enough investors ready to support ramping up of manufacturing. The world wants vaccines… we have 50 candidates undergoing clinical trials because people see this not only as something for humanity but also market value,”.
Production capacity is certainly one of the reasons for the shortage in the vaccine but people are claiming that Centre’s decision to “gift” vaccine doses to a number of countries is also playing a part. India has shipped more than 64 million doses of vaccine to 85 countries. Of these, more than 10 million have been through grants or gifts. India has not just exported vaccines to emerging nations like Ghana, Bhutan or Fijim but also to rich Nations like the United Kingdom, Canada and Saudi Arabia.
During the earlier stages of the vaccination drive, participation from the public was weak. And there were speculations that India might have gained herd immunity already. This possibly caused the centre to open vaccination for more people and give away vaccines to other countries. The US had also stopped exporting vaccines. Experts say that it was the perfect time for India to export vaccines and get a good reputation globally among poor and rich nations alike. Soon India became a vaccine factory to the world. India’s ambassador to the United Nations boasted in March that “we have supplied more vaccines globally than have vaccinated our own people”.
Today the Centre is being criticized about its vaccine policy by the public and the opposition parties. The centre in response is criticizing the states for poor vaccination efforts. The government said that claims about vaccine shortages are “utterly baseless” – more than 40 million doses are “in stock or nearing delivery”, but the reality is that multiple vaccine centres across the country have closed up temporarily. Increasing COVID-19 cases and an increasing fear among the people will only make things worse. It is time that government makes more data available about the vaccines stocks and pacifies the population.
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