NITI Aayog seeks to bust 'myths' about Centre's Covid vaccination drive

Claiming that several ‘myths’ around India’s Covid-19 vaccination program were doing the rounds, the Indian government’s think-tank NITI Aayog, on Thursday, sought to explain the Centre’s efforts towards ramping up the supply of vaccines. 

“These myths are arising due to distorted statements, half-truths and blatant lies,” NITI Aayog said.

Addressing the ‘myth’ that the Centre hasn't done enough to buy vaccines from abroad, NITI Aayog claimed that the government has been engaging with international manufacturers since mid-2020. 

“Multiple rounds of discussions have happened with Pfizer, J&J & Moderna. The government offered all help to have them supply or manufacture their vaccines in India. However, their vaccines are not available in free supply,” the statement read. 

“We need to understand that buying vaccines internationally is not similar to buying off-the-shelf items. Vaccines are in limited supply globally, and companies have their own priorities, game plans and compulsions in allocating finite stocks,” NITI Aayog added. 

Earlier this week, the joint secretary in the health ministry Lav Agarwal conceded that while the Indian government was trying to buy vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, the order books of these companies were full with several nations ahead of India, waiting for the delivery of their ordered supplies. Medical experts have claimed that the Indian government was too late in initiating negotiations with global manufacturers, leading to a slowing pace of vaccinations in India since April. 

Addressing another ‘myth’ that the Centre hasn't approved vaccines available globally, NITI Aayog claimed the Centre has eased the entry of vaccines, sometimes even waiving the requirement of bridging trials. “No application of any foreign manufacturer for approval is pending with the drugs controller,” the statement read.

In February, the expert body under India’s drug regulator had declined to recommend emergency use authorisation for Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine. Pfizer subsequently withdrew its application. However, as Covid cases swelled in India, on April 13, the government waived the condition of phase 2 and 3 clinical trials in the country for vaccines cleared by the US, EU, UK and Japanese regulators and listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

The NITI Aayog further sought to dispel the ‘myth’ that the Centre hasn’t sufficiently ramped up the domestic production of vaccines. It said 3 more companies will produce Bharat Biotech’s indigenous Covid-19 vaccine, Covaxin. 

“Covaxin production by Bharat Biotech is being increased from under 10 million per month to 100 million per month by October. The three PSUs will together aim to produce up to 40 million doses by December. With constant encouragement of the Government, Serum Institute is ramping up Covishield production of 65 million doses per month to 110 million doses per month,” the statement read. 

The NITI Aayog added that the Centre didn’t abdicate its responsibility of supplying vaccines to states and union territories. It said the Centre had run the vaccination program from January to April and it was well-administered. “But states which had not even achieved good coverage of healthcare workers and frontline workers in 3 months wanted to open up the process of vaccination and wanted more decentralisation. Health is a state subject & the liberalised vaccine policy was a result of the incessant requests made by the states to give them more power,” it said. 

"States know our vaccine production capacity. When they said they want flexibility & say in vaccine procurement, a new system was brought in-Centre will procure 50% of vaccines produced domestically, for states for free, for 45+ group," VK Paul, member (health) in NITI Aayog and chair of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19, was quoted as saying by ANI. 

The NITI Aayog said states’ global tenders for vaccines have given no results. “This reaffirms what we have been telling the states from day one: that vaccines are in short supply in the world and it is difficult to procure them at short notice.”

Meanwhile, the Delhi government has claimed that while Pfizer and Moderna had refused to supply vaccines to individual state governments in India, the makers of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine have agreed to supply the vaccine to Delhi. The global tender floated by Mumbai’s civic governing body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has also reportedly received eight offers, including from Pfizer/AstraZeneca and Sputnik. 

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