A major row has broken out between the Centre and states over the differential pricing that has been fixed for the purchase of Covishield vaccine directly from the manufacturer for States and private companies.
The cat was set among the pigeons when the Serum Institute of India (SII), which manufactures Covishield released a statement on Wednesday (April 21) that it will sell its vaccine for ₹400 to state governments, and ₹600 to private hospitals in the country, while the Centre will buy at just ₹150 per dose.
DMK leader, MK Stalin was one of the first state leaders to tweet about it, calling it “discriminatory” and that it defeats the purpose of universal vaccination. Tamil Nadu (TN), which is reportedly facing a severe shortage of vaccines as many people are being turned away from the vaccination centres, has recorded a dip in its vaccination numbers this week.
Further Stalin, who is likely to be the Chief Minister of TN if DMK wins a majority in this 2021 Assembly election, added that this strong price rise is not only inhumane but it will create a big impact on COVID prevention activities.
“Already when the state is in a severe financial crunch, can TN or any other state shoulder the burden of the price of the vaccine?”, asked Stalin, adding that it should be sold to the states at ₹150 on par with the Centre and the Centre should hold talks with the firm to sort this out.
Stalin’s stand was clear: fix a common pricing for the COVID-19 vaccine and requested central funding to procure vaccines.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is in the midst of a brutal election campaign in her state too demanded for a standard price for vaccines irrespective of whether the Centre or state pays for it.
Banerjee took to Twitter on Thursday (April 22) to express her ire against the government’s new vaccination policy, in which the states have to compete with private companies to buy vaccines directly from the manufacturer.
In her tweet, Banerjee in her trademark style blasted the BJP for always advocating for a ‘one nation, one party, one leader’ but when it comes to saving lives they don’t have ‘one price’ for a vaccine. “Every Indian needs free vaccine, regardless of age, caste, creed, location. GoI must fix one price for COVID vaccine irrespective of who pays— Centre or the States,” she stressed.
There should be no discrimination in the vaccine cost, she said, and asked the Centre whether they should be helping people or do business in an emergency situation?
Jay Prakash Majumdar, BJP’s state vice president was quick with a rebuttal. Defending the Centre’s decision, he said that in an open market, private manufacturers have a right to fix a vaccine price after they had calculated the production cost, scientific input and market demand. And Majumdar mockingly asked, “Why is she not negotiating with the company directly?”
However, Banerjee had written to PM Modi in February 24, 2021 itself to allow the state to purchase vaccination doses directly with state funds and launch a massive free vaccination campaign in the state covering the entire population. But now that the number of COVID cases was spiralling, the Centre is shying away from its responsibility to make vaccines available to the people, she said.
The West Bengal government has in fact set aside ₹100 crore for universal vaccination scheduled to take off on May 5, soon after election results will be declared.
Maharashtra may import vaccines
Maharashtra, the worst-hit state in the pandemic had also decided to make its own plans to counter the increasing vaccine shortage in the state. In a recent state cabinet meeting, the government had unanimously decided to request the Centre to allow Maharashtra to import COVID vaccines available in the international market. The funds for this were to be diverted from all the departments to carry out an extensive inoculation drive on the lines of the UK, the state government had said on Tuesday (April 22), a day before the SII announcement.
“We have decided to cut the expenses of all the departments and divert the funds for vaccine procurement. We will not limit our plans only to the two vaccines that are manufactured in the country (Covishield and Covaxin),” said state Health Minister Rajesh Tope. The minister had further said that the state government will bid for vaccines made abroad such as Sputnik-V, Pfizer and Moderna if they are available.
Significantly, Maharashtra housing minister Jitendra Awhad had tweeted the reason for the state government’s decision to import vaccines. The “output of vaccines in India is limited. We have a population of 130 million in the state and local production may not suffice,” he had tweeted. After the details of the new vaccination policy came to light, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray too criticised the Centre for “passing the buck” of the responsibility of universal vaccination to the states.
Kerala: Free vaccines for all
Though the new vaccination policy on states will “adversely” impact states laying a lot of stress on their already stretched finances, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stuck to an earlier promise to provide free vaccines to those above the age of 18 in the state. But, in a press conference on Thursday he urged the Centre to provide the vaccines free to the states since they were already reeling under the financial impact of the pandemic.
“The decision to charge ₹400 for a dose of vaccine will place a heavy financial burden on the states,” he said. The Kerala CM added that the new vaccination policy, which gives states the license to buy directly from manufacturers will put an “additional burden” on the states and push them into a further financial crisis.
But Kerala will continue to provide vaccines free of cost to all its people, irrespective of age, he declared much to the delight of Keralites. “We do not have the habit of changing our word every now and then. We have already said this. Vaccines will be free in Kerala,” reiterated Vijayan.
When journalists asked him how he will meet the additional cost of buying vaccines at ₹400 a dose as suggested by the Centre, the Chief Minister replied that there was no choice since vaccination is a necessity. He admitted that it would be a “difficult burden” for the state to undertake but that is the reason they have asked the Centre to shoulder the responsibility. Throwing the ball back into the Centre’s court, he said, “It is a decision that needs to be taken by the Centre… And, pointedly remarked, such demands are for the “country’s common need”.
The Central government should also take steps quickly to increase vaccine production, he advised. According to Vijayan, health is the constitutional responsibility of the states but the Centre should ensure the required quota to help them do their duty.
And, he added that the Centre should not push the States into a competition with businessmen in the open market. “Instead of a Central government channel, there should be a common government channel controlled and run by the Centre and the states for vaccine distribution,” the Chief Minister suggested.
Seven states make vaccines free of cost to their citizens
Chhattisgarh, which had announced that it will provide free vaccines to all adults above the age of 18, too demanded that the Centre should roll back this decision to avoid states from competing with each other.
Chhattisgarh’s health minister T S Singh Deo argued that whichever state has more resources and is more enterprising will try to corner more stocks. “And states where the vaccine production facilities exist might even put clamps on movement of stock outside of the state, like we have seen in the case of Remdesivir,” he pointed out.
So far, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Sikkim and Assam have announced that they will provide free coronavirus vaccines for free to all adults above 18. In Assam, Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted that funds collected in Assam Arogya Nidhi last year shall be utilised for procurement of the vaccines. The state has placed an order for 1 crore doses with Bharat Biotech. For the states this is turning out tp be one more cross to bear in the midst of a serious pandemic.