Centre may put onus on States to import COVID-19 vaccines

April 26, 2021 10:44 pm | Updated 10:44 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Govt. aiming to support domestic vaccine-makers by guaranteeing purchases from them, say sources

Long wait: People waiting to be vaccinated at a PHC in Vijayawada on Monday.

The Centre has decided to leave the import of COVID-19 vaccines to State authorities and companies, two government officials told Reuters , a decision that may slow the acquisitions of shots as a second wave of the pandemic rips through the country.

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government would instead aim to support domestic vaccine-makers by guaranteeing purchases from them, they said. The government this month paid Indian producers in advance, for the first time, for vaccine doses.

Under fire for his uneven handling of the world’s worst COVID-19 surge, Mr. Modi has opened vaccinations for all adults from next month , but supplies are already running short.

After cases began soaring this month, the Central government had urged Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to seek permission to sell their shots in India, and relaxed rules for them.

Also read: India gets 3rd COVID-19 vaccine as DGCI approves Russian-made Sputnik V for emergency use

But the sources said New Delhi was now leaving it to the States and firms to sign deals with foreign drug makers, while it buys half the output of Indian producers — the Serum Institute, now manufacturing the Anglo-British AstraZeneca vaccine, and Bharat Biotech, the maker of a home-grown shot.

India’s new COVID-19 caseload hit a record daily peak for the fifth day on Monday as countries, including Britain, Germany and the United States, pledged to send urgent medical aid to help tackle the crisis overwhelming its hospitals.

Also read: India to waive import duty on COVID-19 vaccines, says govt source

“The situation is desperate,” a government officials told Reuters . He added that India would allow the import of vaccines by local partners of drug companies, but the Central government “won’t buy”.

“I don’t think the government will be buying foreign vaccines,” another government official said.

Both officials have direct knowledge of the matter, but declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The Ministries of External Affairs, Health and Commerce did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The worst-hit State, Maharashtra, has said it will float a global tender to import vaccines. It is the most affluent State in India, but many poorer ones may fall behind without financial support from the Central government to buy doses from abroad.

Health economist Rijo M. John, a guest professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, criticised the Central government’s approach on vaccine procurement.

“Vaccines should be bought, imported by the Centre and given to the people for free,” he told Reuters .

“If left to the States, some of them may not be able to afford it and consequently may have to charge [the cost of vaccines] to the people, many of whom would not be able to afford it.”

Pfizer has said it is talking to the Central government about supplying vaccines. Johnson & Johnson has sought approval to conduct a small local trial, but made no plans as yet to sell its vaccine in India. Moderna has not commented.

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