An open letter on India’s vaccination programme to Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan

“I need vaccines and I don’t know where else to ask these questions,” Shilpashree Jagannathan writes.
COVID-19 dry run of vaccination in a center in India
COVID-19 dry run of vaccination in a center in India

Dear Dr,

I am writing this letter to ask a lot of questions on my country’s vaccination policy, because as a citizen and voter of this country, I need vaccines and I don’t know where else to ask these questions.

I belong to the 18-44 years category. After a lot of effort, I registered myself on April 28, the minute that the Cowin portal opened for registration. Despite being on the portal for over three weeks, I am nowhere close to getting a slot for vaccinating myself. I live with young children and aged parents, by god’s grace I got my parents vaccinated. But then, my children remain a concern.

I live in a state where the BJP is in power. While your party promised to vaccinate West Bengal and Bihar if your party came to power, why wasn’t this generosity offered to states where you are already in power? I agree that my state’s CM has announced that it would be free for us, but why wasn’t this centralised? Why isn’t it being offered free by the central government to other states as well? Countries all over are vaccinating their citizens free of cost. Why are we — a country with a substantial portion of poor people — having to pay through our nose for a vaccine manufactured in my own country? While I agree it is free of cost in government hospitals, those doses are restricted 45 years above who are a potentially high risk category, but why not the younger lot? Assuming the younger lot do go to the government hospitals, it is crowded and increases the chances of us getting infected there.

Waiving the patents

On the patents issue, media reports suggest that ICMR hasn’t waived the patents on Covaxin, which was jointly developed by ICMR, a government organisation. The research was jointly conducted by ICMR, a publicly funded initiative. When will you make the agreement between ICMR and Bharat Biotech public, I am asking because I want to know who owns how much of this patent?

While on one hand Indian government has asked the World Trade Organization to waive patents on foreign vaccines, why isn’t it waiving patents on our own vaccine: Covaxin? Adding salt to the wound is the fact that Covaxin is priced higher than Covershield. Don’t throw the argument at me saying that the manufacturers need to be incentivized. If that is the case, then why not extend the same courtesy to foreign manufacturers? What moral grounds do our WTO representatives have when they are negotiating with other countries’ representatives demanding a waiver? For the record, I totally agree that patents have to be waived, hence I have started a petition demanding waiver of patents on foreign vaccines I want my country to show its large heart by waiving patents on our own vaccine as well.

The timing

I would like to know when the Government of India entered into an agreement with Bharath Biotech and SII much later? The media reports suggest that the Government of India was a late entrant in signing a deal with Serum Institute for a paltry 11 million doses of these potentially life saving vaccines. I understand Bharath Biotech has produced much less than Serum. What was Indian government doing till January 2021, despite multiple warnings by the scientific community of a potential second wave? By then many other countries in the world had begun witnessing the second wave. While I truly appreciate the magnanimity of Indian government to potentially export the vaccines to all other countries, why was the same enthusiasm not shown to secure vaccines for our own people?

Just two manufacturers?

Despite knowing that we are a large population, why are we hell bent on just two manufacturers? Why aren’t the rest of the 20 government approved manufacturing units being used? I understand Haffkeine has been granted permission to manufacture vaccines, but why was it given permission as late as April? What were we waiting for to give permission to the rest of the units? Are the remaining units being given permission or not? If not, why not? We know that a unit cannot start manufacturing as soon as it is permitted to? So what took the central government so long to act? If only these other units had been allowed to manufacture the vaccines, our Aatmas would have been much more Nirbhar.

If state governments had to make their own supply arrangements for procuring vaccines, why weren’t they asked to do so much before? Why wait till April to ask them to buy their own vaccines? Did we wait for the second wave to hit us to act?

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