How to speed up the vaccination drive

PM Murali/Narayanan Suresh | Updated on May 13, 2021

Testing times Vaccinating 60 per cent of the population by December will be a huge challenge   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Roping in more producers, importing, and reworking the Covishield second shot to 12 weeks are some options before the govt

The nation is grappling with the mammoth task of vaccinating as many of its adult population in the quickest possible time. Here is a prescription to take this challenge head on and rely on our own vaccine manufacturing strengths.

The government has thrown open Covid-19 vaccination to everyone above 18. The population below 18 will be covered only later as so far the current vaccines have not been fully tested for those below 18. Some countries like Canada and the US have allowed vaccination in the 12-15 groups recently.

So, India neds to prepare to vaccinate approximately 94.3 crore people in the quickest possible time. Here, the 18-44 age group has about 60 crore and over 45, approximately 34.3 crore. Epidemiologists currently feel that 60-70 per cent of any given population needs to be fully vaccinated for ‘herd immunity’ to kick in. For India, if we take the lower limit of 60 per cent to start with, it will mean 82.8 crore people. That means the country will need at least 165.6 crore doses. Essentially we need to cover 88 per cent of our currently identified population for vaccination in the quickest possible time.

Current scenario

Where are we now? As of May 10, we had administered two doses of vaccines to 3.59 crore people, or 4.3 per cent of the targeted 82.8 crore people for herd immunity.

We have given one dose to 13.52 crore people. To complete full vaccination of the targeted population, we need another 148.49 crore doses.

What are the options? Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech have committed to the government, based on purchase orders, to deliver a total of 14 crore doses of Covishield and Covaxin by the end of July. Dr Reddy’s Laboratories (DRL) is expected to deliver by July end 1.2 crore doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, manufactured in India under licence.

This means, India will have another 13.2 crore vaccine doses by July end. So, we can fully vaccinate another 6.1 crore people by July end or early August This will take the total of fully vaccinated people to 9.69 crore or 11.7 per cent of the targeted population which will not achieve ‘herd immunity’.

The nation can set a target to fully vaccinate this target group of 82.8 crore by the end of December. This means we will need another 135.2 crore doses in five months from August to December. To be exact, we will need 27.04 crore doses of vaccines every month beginning August.

Serum Institute has announced that its monthly capacity will be 10 crore doses beyond July. Bharat Biotech is scaling up to produce 70 crore doses in a year from its Hyderabad and Bengaluru facilities in a graded manner. Assuming Bharat Biotech can deliver half of this starting August at least 6-7 crore doses a month, India will have 16-17 crore doses from August.

By current plans, Dr Reddy’s will be able to deliver at least one crore doses of Sputnik V every month and scale up production gradually. Zydus Cadila is expecting regulatory approval for its home-made vaccine before the end of this month. Zydus has indicated that it will start with monthly production of one crore doses and scale it to 2-3 crore doses very soon.

In all, beginning August, four Indian vaccine manufacturers can be expected to deliver close to 20 crore doses every month. We still need another 7 crore doses every month to achieve the target by the end of 2021.

What are the options?

States such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha have started the process of floating global tenders for vaccines from the international market.

Various industry estimates indicate that this is a long shot because the three global vaccine manufacturers — Pfizer, J&J, and Moderna — are swamped with orders from Europe, and Indian orders will be way down the supply queue.

The option to buy a vaccine from China exists but officially confirmed efficacy of the antidote is only around 20 per cent and so it may not serve any worthwhile purpose.

Essentially this means India will have to step up investments to further boost production by licensing the manufacture of Covaxin and Zydus Cadila’s vaccine to at least a dozen companies in both private and public sectors on a priority basis. State-owned BIBCOL and Haffkine Pharma are gearing up to make Covaxin on licence but the tech transfer process will take at least nine months and the first dose can be expected only in early 2022. Retooling the dozen-plus other facilities too will take a similar time frame.

Another option is to rework the time for the second dose of Covishield (currently 90 per cent of supply) from 6 to 8 weeks to at least 12 weeks, as in the UK. This will certainly buy us a few more months of breathing space to complete full vaccination for herd immunity. This policy change needs urgent decision. This policy can be tweaked if we are able to bridge the vaccine supply gap if imports materialise.

We also need to create more vaccination centres to ensure the targeted population is vaccinated faster, once we have enough vaccines.

Murali is President of ABLE Business Council and Suresh is COO of ABLE

Published on May 13, 2021

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