Ever since the country has fresh wave of COVID-19 cases in the case, especially in states like Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Kerala etc, all ruled by non-NDA parties, the governments and ruling parties in those states have started to blame the BJP government at the centre for this surge. They are starting to claim that centre is not supplying enough vaccines to them, implying that lack of vaccines is the cause of the surge in cases.
Some of them have tried to create panic among public by claiming that their vaccine stock is running out soon. While they claim there is shortage of vaccine, they are also making a contradictory demand, that the age limit for eligibility for vaccine should be lowered, so that more people can be vaccinated.
This contradiction was seen in the comments on Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope yesterday, when he claimed that the state is facing acute shortages of the coronavirus vaccine, adding that the state now has just 14 lakh doses which would last for only three days. While requesting additional 40 lakh doses per day from the centre, he also demanded that COVID-19 vaccines should be made available for everyone aged 18 and above.
Similar comments and demands have been made by others, such as Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi in a letter to the union health minister.
However, these allegations received a strong rebuttal from union health minister Harsh Vardhan, who denied the claims of vaccine shortage, and showed that these states have not vaccinated their eligible population completely yet, but still asking to make more people eligible. The minister made scathing remarks for Maharashtra in particular, saying that the state government has been incompetent in managing the pandemic.
Giving vaccination data for the states demanding to open up vaccination for everyone above 18 years of age, Harsh Vardhan informed that Maharashtra has vaccinated 86% healthcare workers, 73% frontline workers, and only 25% senior citizens, the eligible groups. The corresponding numbers for Delhi and Punjab are, 72% and 64%, 71% and 65%, and 22% and 20%. The numbers for the second dose in these categories are much lower. This means, there is a substantial number of eligible people still not vaccinated in these states.
The health minister said that the latest claims by these state governments are attempts to divert attention from their poor vaccination efforts by just continuously shifting the goalposts. Saying that the comments by leaders from Maharashtra are nothing but an attempt to divert attention from the Maharashtra government’s repeated failures to control the spread of the pandemic, he added, “the inability of Maharashtra government to act responsibly is beyond comprehension. To spread panic among the people is to compound the folly further. Vaccine supplies are being monitored on a real-time basis, and State governments are being apprised regularly about it. Allegations of vaccine shortage are utterly baseless.”
Saying that Maharashtra has bogged down the entire country’s efforts to fight the virus, Harsh Vardhan said, “I have been a witness to the misgovernance and utter casual approach of Maharashtra Government in battling the virus.”
The minister also pulled up Chhattisgarh for their flawed testing policy of depending heavily on rapid antigen tests, and refusing to use Covaxin developed by Bharat Biotech, despite cleared by the Drug Controller General of India.
It is also interesting to note that while Maharashtra govt is claiming shortage of vaccine, they top the list in the number of vaccinations. So, the question arises, if there is shortage of vaccines in Maharashtra, how it is topping the list of vaccinations, with almost 90 lakh doses administered so far. This shows that the state is getting enough supply of vaccines.
Clamour for foreign vaccines with false claims
While non-NDA ruled states are trying to spread misinformation on vaccine availability, the ecosystem sympathetic to them is busy spreading another misinformation campaign on social media. For last few weeks, left-liberal journalists and activists have been demanding that India should ‘allow’ people to get vaccines made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson etc. They are alleging that Indian government is not allowing those companies to sell their vaccines in India, and demanding that they should be allowed, even if they are priced high, as those who are willing to pay should be allowed to buy them.
Activist journalist Pritish Nandy yesterday claimed that Govt of India is no allowing Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines in the country which the world is using.
Similar claims were made by several other journalists and activists, asking the govt to allow these vaccines in India. They alleged that govt has not allowed these foreign vaccines, while Covaxin was approved even before completion of trials.
Some of them also demanded that govt of India should approve these vaccines in Indian without any trial in the country, as they had already undergone trial in other countries, and are already being administered to people, including Indians in those countries.
However, both the claim and demand, that the Indian govt has not approved these vaccines and govt should approve them suo-moto are completely incorrect. The Drug Controller General of India has not rejected any of these vaccines. And it is wrong to demand that India should approve them directly. Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are RNA vaccines, which is a completely new technology in vaccine development. The J&J vaccine is a single dose traditional viral vector vaccine, which has been approved in EU and USA only recently.
Most countries require that trials for health products are conducted in those countries, or at least data from trials done in other counties are shared before they can be approved. According to Indian rules, local studies for these vaccines are required before they can be administered to Indians. Moreover, the companies behind these vaccines need to be willing to market them in India, and they need to approach the regulator for approval. Let us examine the status of these processes for each of the vaccines in India.
American company Morderna has not yet applied for approval of its vaccine, therefore that the claim that its application has been rejected by Indian government is completely false and misleading. In January this year, there were reports that Tata Medical & Diagnostics was in talks with the company to launch the vaccine in India. The Tata group company was supposed to conduct clinical trial of the vaccine in the country in collaboration with Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). However, no development in that deal seems to have happened, as there is no news about the venture after that. Therefore, there is no proof that Moderna applied for their vaccine in India, and hence the claim that India rejected it is completely false.
Last year, Pfizer had applied emergency use approval for its vaccines developed in collaboration with BioNTech. However, a subject expert body (SEC) under Central Drugs and Standards Committee had asked the company to conduct a local bridge trial in India to generate safety and immunogenicity. SEC had said that safety and immunogenicity data from at least a 1,600-volunteer bridge trial in India is a must for the expert panel to recommend approval to any vaccine candidate.
The SEC had called the company thrice for discussions over the issue, but the company had missed all three meetings. As the company refused to conduct any local bridge trial in India and missed the meetings, the SEC didn’t recommend granting permission to the vaccine. The company had sought a waiver of this requirement, which was not agreed to. After this, Pfizer had withdrawn the application.
Last month Pfizer said that it is willing to manufacture the vaccine in India, if the company is granted faster regulatory approvals and freedom on pricing and export. At present, the Indian govt is controlling the pricing and export of Indian vaccines Covishield and Covaxin, but Pfizer does not want it. This means, after manufacturing at lower costs in India, the company would like to export to richer countries instead of supplying the domestic market, and will want to charge as much as they want for domestic sale.
Pfizer’s approach in other developing countries in regard to the vaccine also raises several questions. The company is accused of “bullying” several Latin American countries, where the company demanded that sovereign assets, including military bases and federal bank reserves, should be pledged as collateral for potential future legal costs for any adverse effect to its vaccine. The company had sought protection from any liability not just for side-effects of the vaccine, but also from its own negligence, fraud or malice.
In Argentina, they wanted a change in the law, exempting from any liability in case of any adverse effect of the vaccine. When the parliament rejected this, the company convinced the govt to buy an international insurance to cover any claim against the company. But the company came up with more demands, and said that the govt should pledge sovereign assets as collateral. Pfizer demanded that Argentina should put its bank reserves, military bases and embassy buildings at stake, to protect in case of any claim for any adverse effect. These demands were rejected by the government.
In Brazil, Pfizer demanded not only sovereign assets, but also said that the government should create a guarantee fund, and deposit money in a foreign bank, to cover any liabilities that the company may face for the vaccine. Brazilian government signed a deal with Pfizer for supply of the vaccine last month, although terms and conditions of the deal are not known.
Johnson and Johnson
Contrary to Pfizer and Moderna, the J&J vaccine will be available for Indians soon. Indian vaccine manufacturer Biological E Ltd is mass manufacturing the vaccine in India, with financing from the US government. This vaccine is part of the new vaccine partnership announced in the first Quad Summit held last month. According to the initiative, US govt will be funding Biological E for the production of vaccines developed in the US, including the J&J vaccine.
This means the J&J vaccine will be available in India under the Quad initiative of India, US, Australia and Japan. However, it is not known when the local trial for the vaccine will commence in India. At present Biological E is conducting trials for another COVID-19 vaccine in India, developed by Baylor College.
It is interesting to note that propaganda is being run on social media in support of only the USA-made vaccines.