With the government approving the use of Covid-19 vaccines for “restricted use in emergency situation” in January this year, and India going ahead with the Covid-19 vaccination drive without having complete data of the Phase-III trials, it was quite natural to witness minor setbacks in conducting the first phase of the nationwide vaccination program covering health care and front line workers, as vaccine hesitancy prevented the government from meeting its inoculation target. Whilst the target was to vaccinate 30 million health care and front line workers, it is understood that the government achieved less than half of that number.
A similar trend continued in the second phase of the Covid-19 vaccination drive (covering vulnerable sections of the public) as several reports indicated that there has been a slow start across the country. The second phase of the vaccination drive covers the population above the age of 60 and individuals who are 45 years of age or older suffering from certain co-morbidities. Scientific experts believe that the vaccination drive needs to be upped by at least six to ten times if our target is to immunize 300 million people most at risk of exposure or death, by August. It is overwhelming to note that we have only immunized one per cent of the population thus far.
A notable aspect of the second phase of the vaccination drive is to involve private hospitals in administering the vaccine shots. As a matter of fact, private centers would out-number the government facilities—20,000 to 10,000, according to our Union Minister Shri. Prakash Javedkar. It is understood that the success of the second phase is key to ramping up the entire Covid-19 vaccination drive. It is hoped that more private hospitals will participate in the inoculation drive and keep their facilities open 24*7 to enable the government in achieving its vaccination target.
The decision of the government to bring-in the private sector has received mixed reactions—while some believe that the pace of vaccination would be accelerated, others believe that there would be wrongful exclusion of eligible people. Involving the private sector would also lead to concentration of vaccine delivery points in the urban areas. Further, in view of the large global supply-demand mismatch, including the private sector may lead to black-marketing of vaccines, thus excluding the poor and needy. One way of dealing with this issue is preventing direct procurement of vaccines by private hospitals.
In order to prevent any profiteering, the government has capped the fee that can be charged by private hospitals to ₹150 per person per dose as cost of the vaccine dose and ₹100 per person per dose as service charges. Therefore, the ceiling of the amount chargeable by private hospitals is INR 250 per person per dose. Those who are eligible for the jab can self-register on the government’s portal – Co-Win. Since there have been some glitches in the registration software, it is assumed that walk-in facilities will be available soon. As per the Centre’s guidelines, protective levels of antibodies are generally developed two weeks after receiving the second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, and therefore, it is advised that the entire cycle should be completed.
In order to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy, a short-term solution could be to ramp up the vaccination drive in places where people are willing to take the Covid-19 vaccine. Needless to mention, the focus of the government would be to target the population groups who reside in regions having higher rates of infections. Whilst the turnout for the vaccination drive in urban areas would not be a problem, awareness programs need to be conducted in the semi-urban and rural areas to educate the masses.
It is commendable that top private companies are coming forward to extend their support to the government in its second phase of the Covid-19 vaccination drive. Companies like Reliance Industries, Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Accenture, and Uber are intending to cover the cost of the Covid-19 vaccines for eligible employees and their dependents in India.
In the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, strong partnerships are expected between the government and private entities to conduct a successful and speedy vaccination drive. Private players need to see this as their corporate social responsibility. To recall, in a matter of a few months, effective public-private partnerships in India have resulted in multiple Covid-19 vaccines being researched, developed and manufactured, thereby re-affirming India’s position as the vaccine capital of the world.
Views are personal. The author is Partner – General Corporate, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co.