The government on Monday faced several tough questions about its Covid vaccination policy, with the Supreme Court flagging “various flaws” in an inoculation drive already criticised for differential pricing, shortage of doses, a slow rollout, and lack of access from rural areas of the country.
The court was told the government expects to vaccinate all of India by end-2021, to which it highlighted roadblocks, including discrepancy in vaccine supply for different age groups and dual-pricing.
“For entire population above 45, centre is procuring (vaccines) but for 18-44 there is bifurcation of procurement – 50 per cent available to states by manufacturers and price is fixed by the centre, and rest to be given to private hospitals. What is the (actual) basis for this?” the court asked.
“Your rationale was high mortality in 45+ group (but) in the second wave this group is not seriously affected… it is 18-44. If purpose is to procure vaccines, why should the centre procure only for over 45?” a three-member bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, LN Rao and S Ravindra Bhat asked.
Data last week showed that nearly 50 per cent of Covid cases between May 1-24 were from the 18-40 group – from 49.70 per cent between May 1-7 to 47.84 per cent between May 22-24.
“Why should states have to pay the higher price? Centre has to take over the responsibility of one price for the whole nation,” the court stressed, pointing out that it had “price-fixing powers”.
“Why has the government left it to manufacturers to fix the price of vaccines?” it asked.
Under the centre’s new “liberalised” policy, which came into effect May 1, states can buy up to 50 per cent of their vaccine needs from manufacturers, although at higher prices than that fixed for the centre. Private hospitals have to pay even higher prices.
The differential pricing sparked furious protest, with the opposition Congress accusing the centre of “vaccine profiteering” and sarcastically reminding it of its “one nation, one price” war cry.
The prices – fixed by manufacturers Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech – were eventually reduced, but they are still well above the Rs 150 per dose that the centre pays.
The centre was also asked about global tenders being floated by some states, including Delhi, to offset what they say is limited supply of vaccines from the centre, particularly for the 18-44 age group.
“Please do not go into this issue on global tender. Some corporations (and) states have floated global tenders. This question is academic,” the centre said.
“It is not academic. Mumbai received bids from Sputnik. Are you leaving it to individual states… or does the centre represent the entire country?” the Supreme Court shot back.
“Not practical for states to get vaccines from abroad… leaving them in the lurch,” the court added.
Delhi and Punjab approached Pfizer and Moderna to strike individual deals but both were turned down.
The court also grilled the centre over the “digital divide”, pointing out that requiring people to register on CoWIN would hamper vaccination efforts in rural areas, where access to the internet is unreliable.
“Everyone has to register on CoWIN (but) the digital divide… Is it realistically possible to expect (people) from rural areas to register on COWIN?” the court asked.
To the response: “Villagers can go to computer centres and register… and they will be vaccinated”, the court repeated its question: “Is this really practical?” and also pointed out that migrant workers travelling from one state to another were unlikely to have even that level of access.
Over 21 crore doses have been administered so far, but experts say this amounts to only around 11 per cent of the country’s population, only three per cent of which has been fully vaccinated.
Experts have warned of a third wave and stressed that it is imperative to vaccinate as much of the population, as quickly as possible, to minimise the impact of that and any future waves.