Centre may turn ‘Purchase Head’, procure COVID vaccines for all states

Under one-point purchase channel, a Central agency may negotiate terms with pharma firms; bulk procurement may reduce cost by 25%

The rate of COVID vaccination in India stands at a meagre 3.2%.

Amid sharp criticism over frequent flip-flops in its COVID vaccine policy, and the severe vaccine crunch that the country is facing, the Centre is considering taking charge of the procurement, said a media report.

As on Wednesday, June 2, India had administered 21.6 crore vaccines. About 4.38 crore have received both doses, which means the rate of vaccination in the country stands at a meagre 3.2%.

Policy U-turn

The Centre had originally planned to procure vaccines for all, and administer them in a phased manner. However, as the second wave of COVID took a huge toll, and a severe vaccine crunch accentuated the problem, the Centre suddenly opened up the programme to 18-to-44-year-olds.  This, as part of Phase 3 of the vaccination drive, was advanced by several weeks.

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It also said the state governments had to handle the procurement by themselves. Additionally, private hospitals were allowed to procure vaccines by themselves and administer them at a fixed price.

This brought up the question of why one state should be pitted against another in the international vaccine market ­— since the process would jack up prices. Also, some vaccine makers, such as Pfizer and Moderna, were not keen on negotiations with provincial governments.

Single-window purchase

Now, the Centre could be looking at procuring vaccines on behalf of the states, said a report in the Hindustan Times. It quoted people in the know as saying the government is seriously mulling a centralised channel to procure vaccines, and the modalities are being thrashed out.

Also read: Explainer: Decoding the SC order slamming Centre’s vaccination policy

A Central agency may handle the negotiations with pharma firms, and supply to shipments to the states on the basis of their respective requirements, said the report. This way, while the states would still foot the bill, they wouldn’t have to engage in individual negotiations and bargaining with the drug MNCs.

Since the order would be a substantial, one, it would be cost-effective, too. Per some estimates, a collective bargain would make the vaccine 25% cheaper.

States’ demand

This has for long been the demand of several chief ministers, particularly the non-BJP-ruled ones. Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan, Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal and Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik, for instance, have been insisting that the Centre take up this task. The governments of Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Punjab also had called for a common window for purchase, said the HT report.

It may be noted that many states had earlier said a decentralised vaccine procurement mechanism would work best. Seeing the lack of response in the global market, the preference seems to be for a collective centralised mechanism, said the report.

Who foots the bill?

Another issue that may prove thorny is the cost. Health is on the state list. Yet, the Centre had, as the COVID vaccination programme took off, laid a firm rein on it — including adding the Prime Minister’s photo to each vaccination certificate. Also, in the latest Union Budget, it had allocated ₹35,000 crore for the vaccination programme.

While some state governments haven’t expressed their opinion on who should pay for the vaccination programme, some are willing to foot the bill once the Centre procures it for them for an appropriate rate. Some other governments, such as that of Kerala, insist that the Centre ought to handle the bill, too.

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