The centre has defended its Covid vaccination policy – criticised for differential pricing, shortage of doses, and slow rollout – in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court late Sunday night.
The affidavit urged against “judicial interference” and warned that “overzealous, though well-meaning, intervention may lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences”.
“In the context of a global pandemic, where response and strategy of the nation is completely driven by expert medical and scientific opinion, there is little room for judicial interference. Any overzealous, though well-meaning, judicial intervention may lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences… in absence of any expert advice or administrative experience, leaving doctors, scientists, experts and executive very little room to find innovative solutions on the go,” the centre said in its affidavit.
“Pricing of vaccines is not only reasonable but uniform across the country (after) government persuasion with two vaccine companies resulted in uniform pricing,” the centre added.
It said everyone in the 18-45 age group (whose vaccinations had been delayed till the first week of May) would be vaccinated for free, as states had announced such plans. It also said crematorium workers, and panchayat workers in rural areas, were “frontline workers” and so eligible for the vaccine.
The Supreme Court, which last week directed the centre to reconsider vaccine prices – “to ensure it withstands scrutiny of Articles 14 (equality before law) and Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Constitution” – will hear the issue today.
The row over vaccine prices was after manufacturers Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech announced vastly different prices for the centre, state governments and private hospitals.
While the centre continues to spend only Rs 150 per dose of either Serum Institute’s Covishield or Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, states must pay Rs 400 per dose for Covaxin and private hospitals Rs 1,200. Covishield costs Rs 300 per dose for states and Rs 600 for private hospitals.
Prices for states and private hospitals were originally higher and were reduced only after outrage.
The vast difference in prices also triggered a political storm, with the Congress accusing the centre of “vaccine profiteering” and sarcastically reminding it of the “one nation, one price” war cry.
The centre pointed out it would get 50 per cent of vaccine supply and that this would be supplied to states for free. However, it made no comment on the higher prices of the remaining 50 per cent.
Last week the Supreme Court said compelling states to negotiate with manufacturers, on grounds of promoting competition and making it attractive for new manufacturers, would adversely affect those in the 18-44 age group, whose vaccination has only just begun.
During the first hearing on this matter, held last month, the court had said: “During the national crisis, Supreme Court cannot be a mute spectator. The role of the court is complimentary.”
India began its vaccination drive in January and has administered nearly 17 crore doses so far but the pace has been questioned, with states running out of stock and shutting down centres.
So far two vaccine options are available, with a third – Russia’s Sputnik V – having been cleared for emergency use and expected to be rolled out soon. In its affidavit the centre also said it is in consultation with manufacturers like Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to bring in their products.
The country’s vaccination policy has also been criticised abroad, with international medical journal The Lancet last week calling it “botched” and “falling apart” at the central level.