A single person deprived of vaccination will be to the collective detriment of a large section of the society. The Centre’s COVID-19 vaccination policy must be underpinned by the principle that “we are as strong as our weakest link.” Any immunisation policy must be done in furtherance of a person’s fundamental right to health, the Mamata Banerjee government told the Supreme Court on Friday.
The State said the vaccine pricing policy is “ ex-facie detrimental to the interest of the State governments and will result in an inequitable distribution of vaccines across the country.”
Questions the rationale
West Bengal asked the Centre to explain the rationale behind the differential pricing of vaccines. Vaccines are sold by the two manufacturers to the Centre at ₹150 while the States have to buy them at ₹300 for Covishield and ₹600 for Covaxin.
“Profiteering at the time of a pandemic is something this court ought not to countenance … The basis for such a differential cost for each vaccine is not founded on any intelligible differentia and is per se manifestly arbitrary and discriminatory,” West Bengal told the Supreme Court in a 218-page affidavit which is part of a suo motu case on COVID-19 management before the Supreme Court.
The present outcome of the government’s vaccine policy is that States have to buy them from the open market at higher prices. The cost of vaccinating the 18 to 45 demographic would have to be either borne by the individual States or the individual citizens who have to pay and get vaccinated at private hospitals.
“Currently, only 1.54% of the Indian population has been fully vaccinated and only around 8.4% of the population has received one dose of the vaccine. If India wants to cover at least 80% of its eligible population, i.e., 80% of the population above 18 years of age by the end of this year, then it must increase its vaccination rate by about 100 million doses/month,” West Bengal said.
It said that at the current rate of vaccination, which is about 2.2 million doses administered per day, only 30% of the eligible population would be vaccinated fully by the end of 2021.
“The immediate singular objective of the Government of India ought to be to take drastic steps to achieve universal coverage at the earliest. The current differential pricing mechanism will result in low coverage of the population. Vaccines must be considered as a ‘public good’ and therefore should be free of cost … it cannot be reduced to a market commodity,” the State government argued.
The West Bengal government asked the Centre to learn from the National Infectious Disease Control Programmes of the past. “The Government of India under the time-tested Universal Immunisation Programmes has provided vaccines to the States for free or subsidised distribution … The State government would like to recommend that the time-tested immunisation programmes in operation for the last 73 years that deliver universal coverage should function as a vaccination model at the time of this pandemic,” the Mamata Banerjee government advised the Centre.
Vaccination was allocated ₹35,000 crore in the Budget. With vaccines being sold at ₹150 per dose, it is well within the government’s powers to attain universal coverage.
“The court may also consider directing the Government of India to take immediate steps for compulsorily licensing the vaccines and expand vaccine production through the 18 manufacturing companies in India, thereby boosting vaccine availability at an administered price per dose,” West Bengal suggested.
Short on funds
West Bengal said several States were short on funds and the financial hardship had been exacerbated on account of the Centre’s inability to fully compensate the States under the GST regime. “In this context, it may be noted that there are several States which may be financially incapable of bearing the burden of universal coverage in their State. Therefore, going ahead of the existing vaccine policy would result in an inequitable distribution of vaccines across the States and to citizens of India at large thereby defeating the objective of universal coverage,” it said.
Also bigger States would be in a stronger position to negotiate prices.
West Bengal said it was “the legal and moral responsibility” of the Centre to reimburse the State governments for the expenses of vaccination incurred.