Indian government takes back vaccine distribution from states in new push against Covid-19

Prime Minister Narendra Modi says federal government will take over responsibility and that more vaccine doses are coming

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India will vaccinate all citizens above the age of 18 against Covid-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Monday, in the latest push against a devastating coronavirus wave.

Mr Modi said his government was taking back control of the vaccination programme from regional governments after chronic shortages of vaccine doses.

“From June 21, the centre [federal government] will provide free vaccines to states for all above 18," he said in a televised address.

Under the earlier policy, the federal government gave free vaccines to those above 45 and frontline workers, while state governments inoculated people between 18 and 44.

The private sector will continue to be allocated 25 per cent of doses, which can be distributed through hospitals and private companies.

Most states were also providing the shots free of charge to the younger age group, but faced a huge challenge in procuring doses as the country was gripped by a manufacturing shortfall.

Last week India’s Supreme Court denounced the government’s vaccination policy as “arbitrary and irrational”, because of its criteria for free vaccinations.

India launched the world’s largest vaccination programme in January and set a target of inoculating 300 million people, mostly health and frontline workers and those above 45, by the end of July.

But a sudden decision in May to extend the vaccinations to nearly 600 million people above the age of 18 derailed the drive.

India had 80 million doses available in May, forcing many regions to limit immunisation as they struggled to procure vaccines because of low local production and lack of international supplies.

Cities such as Delhi bore the brunt of the second wave and had to stop vaccinating young people after they ran out of shots.

“Vaccine supply will be increasing in the coming days," Mr Modi said.

"Seven companies in the country are producing different vaccines. Three vaccine trials are at an advanced state."

“Research on a nasal spray vaccine is continuing, which if successful can significantly boost India’s vaccination drive."

The world's leading vaccine-producing country has administered 212 milliondoses since January. More than 160 million people received the first dose up to May.

About 44 million, about 3 per cent of India’s population, have been completely vaccinated, the Health Ministry says.

India is slowly recovering from a second wave of coronavirus that has killed nearly 150,000 people and infected 20 million since March.

The country reported 100,636 new cases and 2,400 deaths on Monday.

India is administering two locally made vaccines, Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield produced by the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, after they were given emergency approval in January.

Vaccines should be paid by the central government and there should be a single price fixed

It has given emergency approval to Russia’s Sputnik V at a smaller scale as demand for vaccines grows.

Mr Modi said there would be an increased supply of vaccines because more trials are under way.

India recently said it would vaccinate allcitizens by the end of the year, but many experts have expressed scepticism.

Critics have accused Mr Modi’s government of fumbling the vaccination drive, saying it failed to procure enough doses when the pandemic hit the country last year.

The latest move follows widespread criticism of the administration’s policy, which started a race among regional governments to procure vaccines on their own.

Several regional governments unsuccessfully began global tenders but makers such as US-based Moderna and Pfizer insisted they would only deal with the federal government.

The dire vaccination situation in the country led the Supreme Court to ask tough questions of the government, including its “dual-pricing” policy under which states were paying more for the doses than the federal government.

"It is the right decision and the dual approach should never have been there in the first place, particularly considering the pandemic," Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, an independent vaccinologist, told The National

"Vaccines should be paid by the central government and there should be a single price fixed."

Regional leaders and the country's opposition Congress party welcomed the announcement, while claiming that the federal government buckled under pressure from regional administrators and the court.

Jaiveer Shergill, a Congress party spokesman, tweeted that he hoped there would be no more "misadventures and blunders" by the government on vaccine distribution.

Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of southern Kerala state, said he was happy that its request had been positively responded to by the Prime Minister.

“The Prime Minister's declaration that Covid-19 vaccine will be supplied free of cost to the states from June 21 is the most appropriate response at this hour,” Mr Vijayan tweeted.