BJP’s Bihar move raises a question: How to give vaccines for free?

Free vaccination for all would need bringing it under the flagship Universal Immunization Program

On Wednesday (April 21), the US-based vaccine manufacturer said it is exploring opportunities to make the COVID-19 vaccine available in India instead of manufacture it here.

The BJP’s promises of free COVID-19 vaccines to poll-bound Bihar has found itself in a controversy. Offering a life-saving vaccine to an election-state has raised eyebrows and triggered allegations of a political twist to the entire issue.

Soon after this announcement, Tamil Nadu and BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh too announced free vaccination.

Related news: BJP promises 19 lakh jobs, free COVID shots in Bihar poll manifesto

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The procurement and the distribution process of the vaccine has not been elaborately laid down for the states and it is being expected that the Centre will procure the vaccine at a price negotiated by it and then it’d be on the states to buy as per their needs.

Following its first meeting in August, the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 had advised the states not to chart separate pathways of procurement of the vaccine. This fact indicates a national framework for vaccine procurement.

A tweet by BJP’s Amit Malviya following the release of the manifesto also indicated towards this direction. “Like all programs, Centre will provide vaccines to state at a nominal rate. It is for the state Govts to decide if they want to give it for free or otherwise. Health being a state subject, Bihar BJP has decided to give it free. Simple,” he tweeted.

However, assuring free vaccination for everyone won’t be an easy task for the Centre; for that would need bringing it under the flagship Universal Immunization Program (UIP), under the National Health Mission. Moreover, the vaccination program, which now includes only children and pregnant, has to be extended to cover the entire adult population. The UIP now covers nine diseases at national level and three others in select endemic districts, according to The Indian Express.

The report quoted an expert as saying that the Centre needs to work out the modalities on pricing with the states to include COVID-19 vaccination under the UIP.

Related news: Cyber attack at Dr Reddy’s ahead of human trials of COVID-19 vaccine

Another expert, leading researcher and scientist Gagandeep Kang has said vaccines should be free for everyone and part of universal health coverage. “For SARS-COV2 vaccines, since supply will be limited, they should be provided to those at highest need of protection using an open transparent allocation strategy,” The New Indian Express quoted her as saying.

Meanwhile, Niti Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar had recently expressed confidence that money and resources will be in place for a viable and effective vaccination system to fight COVID-19, even as he said it is quite premature to talk about the cost to be incurred on it, according to PTI.

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