A stitch in time: India needs vaccine distribution plans that prioritise beneficiaries and use all available routes


The joint effort by Oxford University and AstraZeneca to develop a vaccine to combat Covid-19 crossed a milestone with the announcement on Monday that it is 70% effective in trials. The update on this vaccine, along with the progress of two other vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna, are encouraging in the backdrop of a surge in infections following the festival season. India cannot afford another lockdown. Therefore, the next phase in the battle should focus on vaccination.

There are about 50 candidate vaccines undergoing trials, based on four technology platforms. Given the differences in the distribution infrastructure needed and the consequent impact on costs, we need more than one vaccine and multiple pathways to access them. The government also needs to prioritise the beneficiaries as there won’t be enough to go around as soon as a vaccine receives regulatory approval. The UK, for instance, has disclosed a priority list and placed care homes at the top based on vulnerability. India needs something similar as not everyone is exposed to the same level of risk.

The government will face two challenges in days to come. Richer countries have pre-booked vaccines by paying upfront. Also, the mRNA vaccines may not be accessible right away as we lack the infrastructure to store them at the necessary subzero temperatures. On the positive side, not only are Indian companies large scale vaccine manufacturers, the Universal Immunisation Programme has an existing storage infrastructure and distribution network which covers millions of children annually under its free immunisation programme. Separately, states such as Tamil Nadu have said the government will budget for a free vaccination drive.

Covid-19 levels differences; everyone is potentially a spreader. Therefore, it makes sense to prepare for both a free vaccination drive as well as one that is market linked. The quicker people get vaccinated, the better it will be for the process of economic recovery. The government, with its ability to buy in large quantities, can lower costs for subsequent distribution. A combination of free vaccination along with a reduction in costs through bulk purchases can cover a substantial section of the population. Imports should also be allowed from the beginning as it will start lowering the overall risk of spread of Covid-19. The priority must be to cover the largest number in the shortest time. Money on vaccines is money well spent, since it’ll speed up an economic rebound.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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