The Covid-19 vaccine, still nowhere on the horizon, is in the eye of a political storm, with the BJP on Thursday promising to provide free shots to the over 10 crore population of Bihar as part of its election manifesto, and the Opposition deriding this as ‘vaccine politics’. The State is headed for three-phase Assembly polls from October 28.
On the heels of the BJP, one of its supporters, the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu, offered to administer the vaccine to all, again free of cost. The State will go to elections in May. At Pudukottai, after a review meeting with officials on Covid-19 preventive measures, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami said that “The State government will bear the entire expenses.” The State has a population of 7.25 crore.
Releasing the BJP’s manifesto for Bihar polls, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said: “When we reach the stage where scientists give clearance for large-scale production of the vaccine, we will make it available to the people of Bihar free of cost.”
Earlier, as part of the Covid-19 vaccine preparedness discussions, the Health Ministry had promised the States that it would procure vaccines for all and distribute them, and did not want them getting into a race for the antidote.
Not just at home, the Covid-19 vaccine has had international political ramifications, too.
At a recent WTO meeting, India, along with South Africa, lobbied for the waiver of certain Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights obligations on medicines and vaccines to contain the raging pandemic.
While a large number of developing countries supported this, the US and other developed economies do not seem to be in favour. The move to provide free vaccines may give the latter a point in their favour.
The principal Opposition party in Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), said a Covid vaccine belongs to the country, not to the BJP.
“The political use of a vaccine shows that the BJP has no choice but to sell the fear of disease and death. All Biharis are self-respecting, they will not sell their children’s future for money,” the party said.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi ridiculed the Finance Minister’s statement, saying the Centre just announced India’s Covid access strategy. “Kindly refer to the State-wise election schedule to know when you will get it, along with a hoard of false promises,” he said.
“There announcements are mere gimmicks. I don’t think any State will be able to vaccinate the whole population in 2021,” said Ommen C Kurian, Senior Fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
“At least in 2021-22, most of the vaccinations will anyway be free as they will be for high-risk categories,” said Kurian, adding that the Centre has just set aside ₹50,000 crore for the exercise. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has said that by the mid-2021, India would be able to roll out the vaccine to around 25 crore people, including frontline health workers, the elderly and people with co-morbidities.
It is still not clear how much the vaccine will cost. Pune-based Serum Institute, which is manufacturing and testing the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine in India, is the only one to indicate the price; it has said that each dose is not expected to cost more than $3.
Vaccine experts pointed out that India has the cold-chain logistics to ferry vaccines across the country and into rural areas at between 2°C and 8°C, complete with ice boxes and refrigerators.
“For the new generation vaccines, storage would be about -20°C and that too is not new in India, as they do it for polio vaccines. The point is to scale it up to the volumes required for the Covid vaccine,” pointed out a vaccine expert.
With inputs from Chennai and Mumbai bureaus