India will likely face acute shortages of Coronavirus vaccines if all adults eligible for vaccination begin queuing up for the jabs from May 1.
Earlier this month, the Centre revised the vaccination policy doubling the population of potential beneficiaries without immediate provisions for the extra doses needed. The decision to widen the inoculation net from the current 45 years or older to all adults has raised the number of eligible beneficiaries from about 350 million to 900 million.
“It is scary… where are the doses India would require at this scale? “There’ll be a bit of madness for some time, then things will settle down,” asked a top vaccine industry executive.
Currently, India has access to around 70 million doses per month of the Serum Institute of India’s Covishield and nearly 20 million doses per month of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, according to health officials and industry analysts.
“The phase of vaccinations starting May 1 will increase demand significantly without a clear pathway to increasing the supply,” Krishna Udayakumar, associate professor and founding director of the Duke Global Health Institute in the US, said.
Foreign vaccine makers such as Pfizer and Moderna have been invited by India to introduce their vaccines in India and private hospitals are free to procure such vaccines. “This has raised hope that such international manufacturers would speed up delivery to India, though we don’t see this yet,” Udayakumar said.
A third vaccine approved by India - Russia’s Sputnik V and the release of AstraZeneca’s vaccine stocks by the US for use in other countries could help relieve the shortage problem, however, experts are unclear about the timelines and doses available to India.
The vaccination policy has been described as “liberalised and flexible”, which is the opposite of the stand that was supported by health officials and the Union health minister Harsh Vardhan earlier this month. “So long as the supply of vaccines is limited, there is no option but to prioritise,” Vardhan had said on April 7 in a statement that had been named as “deplorable” demands by some states to offer vaccines to people 18 years or older.
Health policy experts observe the Centre’s withdrawal of opinion as a move to shift the responsibility of vaccinating all adults from the Centre to the states — without the doses required to facilitate the process.
“This appears to have been a political move,” in response to the demand from some states and health experts to open up vaccination to all adults, one industry executive said. “The demands likely came from a poor understanding of reality.”
On Tuesday, the union health ministry stated that the Centre had rendered more than 156 million vaccine doses to states, along with issuing a table showing every state with some unused doses. In addition, eight million doses would reach the states within three days.
Several states including Maharashtra and Bengal, vaccine recipients, some of whom were seeking their first doses were turned away by vaccination centres because of shortages of vaccine shots.
Maharashtra had more than 923,000 doses unused on Tuesday, while Bengal had over 397,000 unused doses said the health ministry.
But a health expert in Delhi said a stock of unutilized vaccines in a state does not mean every vaccination centre has enough to vaccinate everyone who arrives for vaccination.
Vaccine shortages may escalate in coming weeks, experts predict.
Under the new vaccination policy, 50% of doses would be obtained by the centre and distributed to the states, while states and private hospitals would be free to secure the balance of 50 per cent doses on their own from manufacturers.
Vaccine makers Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech have intimated that in the early weeks, there will be limited vaccine stocks to allocate to private hospitals.
Customers will be charged Rs 600 for Covishield and Covaxin at Rs 1,200 at private hospitals.
The Centre earlier this month announced financial support to the vaccine makers to support them in increasing their production capacity.
An executive representing one of the two companies said that it is not possible to increase the supply immediately. “This will take time, some weeks,” he added.