Vaccine home stretch

| Updated on November 25, 2020 Published on November 25, 2020

There has been some positive news on the vaccine front recently   -  REUTERS

Apart from choosing the right one, cost, distribution logistics and supplies are the key

At his recent meeting with chief ministers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly emphasised the need to ramp up efforts on the distribution logistics of the vaccine, while also indicating that issues of cost and vaccine efficacy are still being worked out. Rapid vaccination is being viewed as the only sure-shot way to beat the pandemic. Global vaccine research has reached a critical phase, with four entities claiming high efficacy levels in laboratory conditions. Pfizer and Moderna seem to have claimed higher protection rates than Astra Zeneca-Oxford, but they come at a high cost ($37-39 per dose) with storage requirements at minus 70 degrees Celsius and minus 20 degrees Celsius, respectively. The Astra-Zeneca-Oxford vaccine, being manufactured by Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), will be made available at less than $3 per dose to the government, and to private players at ₹1,000 a dose. It can reportedly be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius, which makes it prima facie the best bet in Indian conditions. Sputnik V vaccine, likely to be manufactured by Dr Reddy’s Lab, is expected to be available at $20 a dose and can reportedly be stored at minus 20 degrees C. While SII seems best placed to deliver large volumes, India would need to source from other producers to cover all sections of the population quickly. Cost becomes a major factor.

India’s joint proposal at the WTO with South Africa demands a “waiver” of intellectual property rights for the duration of the pandemic. The proposal argues that TRIPS flexibilities introduced in the Doha Declaration (2001) are not sufficient to deal with the current situation. Presently, developing countries can invoke a compulsory licence to manufacture a patented medicine in a national emergency, or import a medicine so produced, thereby reducing costs. The proposal argues that in view of the ‘legal and institutional constraints’ to invoking these flexibilities in the case of many countries, a waiver of IPRs (not just patents, but copyrights, trademarks and industrial designs) would be a better option. What may not be readily available now, for instance, is clinical trials data, which can play a crucial role in making informed choices with respect to vaccines. With the developed world opposing this somewhat radical proposal, it is possible that the status quo on TRIPS will continue. However, in that case, the developing world can make a case for greater transfers from multilateral funds such as COVAX and ACT-A.

As for vaccine efficacy, the Centre should satisfy itself that claims made so far are genuine. Side-effects, as alleged in the case of the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer’s and Moderna’s) must be considered. To control its own distribution costs, the government should ensure availability of the vaccine in the market for those willing to pay for it. Besides relying on private players, it should ramp up public sector output, invoking TRIPS in this regard.

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Published on November 25, 2020
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