Coronavirus | COVID-19 vaccine likely to be free for the poor

Will the government of India have ₹80,000 crore over the next one year to buy and distribute the vaccine, asks Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla.

Those unable to afford a probable COVID-19 vaccine will get it for free and the government is considering a large immunisation programme to make the vaccine widely available, a highly placed official involved in the strategy told The Hindu.

The cost of the vaccine would likely retail between $2-3 (₹140-210), the official said.

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Adar Poonawalla, CEO, Serum Institute of India (SII) tweeted on Saturday: “Will the government of India have ₹80,000 crore over the next one year? Because that’s what the Health Ministry needs to buy and distribute the vaccine to everyone in India. This is the next concerning challenge we need to tackle @ PMOIndia?”

A spokesperson for the company said no further clarification was available for Mr. Poonawala’s statement. At a population of 130 crore, this works out to about ₹600 per vaccine. “The situation is currently complex and dynamic but a likely price would be close to half of that or $2-$3,” said the person who declined to be identified because the policy wasn’t yet firmed up. “Those in the national immunisation programme will get it free. There will be a large government-led programme…essentially all who cannot pay will get it free.”

India’s mission Indradhanush, or the national immunisation programme, provides free vaccines against 12 vaccine-preventable diseases mostly to children and the pregnant. Some are provided nationally and some sub-nationally depending on the rate of disease prevalence.

The COVID-19 vaccines being tested are only being administered in healthy adult volunteers to check for safety and efficacy.

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Shahid Jameel, a virologist and Director, Trivedi School for Biosciences, Ashoka University, said for pregnant women to be administered the vaccine, a certain percentage of them would have to be included in phase-3 trials. Once the trials are proven safe and efficacious in adults, the vaccines can be re-purposed for children.

The SII has begun phase-3 trials of its vaccine candidate, Covishield, this month. It has committed to producing about 100 million doses for India and 92 other low income countries, partly aided by a $150-million fund by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Half of those doses are expected to be available for India though it isn’t clear yet whether a vaccine shot would involve one or two doses and if these prices are only for the first 100 million doses.

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Mr. Jameel said the costs could be low as much of the vaccine development had been funded by international partnership and donor money and pricing it too high would be “politically disastrous”.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has said a vaccine could be available by early next year. He told Parliament that a “vaccine strategy” was also ready and health care workers were likely to be the first recipients. The SII vaccine has been developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. There are other candidates being tested by other Indian companies.

Another official familiar with the vaccine development process said the flu vaccine had cost around ₹500 and the hepatitis B vaccine ₹350. “It’s in the ballpark but there could be different prices if it’s delivered via the national immunisation programme”


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