India has become the epicentre of the second wave of COVID-19 with over 3.46 lakh fresh cases as of 11.15 pm on April 23, 2021 (the highest-ever single-day spike in coronavirus infections in the world) along with around 3000 deaths per day. Information on the appearance of mutant variations of Covid in Europe and Africa had been there in mid-2020, and its likely spread to Asian countries was already predicted. And when the second wave of Covid actually started in Europe towards the last quarter of 2020, all the governments there have taken precautions including closing down of borders. But Modi govt, as usual, took a criminal negligence to this information and no preparation was done to meet the impending challenge. Through obscurantist and megalomaniac practices such as ‘switching of lights’ and ‘banging vessels’ followed by the superimposition of the most stringent and most prolonged coercive lockdown in gross disregard of the livelihood and sustenance of hundreds of millions of poor people including migrant workers, and without doing anything towards strengthening the healthcare system, during the first phase of Covid itself, Modi regime has exposed its incapacity and inefficiency in dealing with the pandemic. At the same time, using Covid as a cover, neoliberal, corporate-saffron fascist policies are pursued with intensified vigour.
Today, the Covid surge in India comes at a time when countries like US are reportedly witnessing first signs of recovery from the year-long crisis. While re-imposition of virus management measures such as containment zones, night curfews, job-losses and reverse migration of workers and dampening impact on economic activity along with total failure of administration are there in the second wave too, what is striking now is the nation-wide vaccination drive that accompanies the Covid surge. India being a leading traditional vaccine producer, Modi using his atmanirbhar plank till now was claiming it as self-reliant in Covid vaccine too, and Modi has been encouraging vaccine and oxygen exports much larger than what was mandated by international commitments. Meanwhile, both Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech were respectively giving Covishield and Covaxin at Rs.150 to the government which the latter was distributing free of cost through state governments and at Rs.250 (including Rs.100 as service charge /hospital user fee) through private hospitals. This remained the situation even as states like Maharashtra, Delhi, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Kerala were struggling to get vaccine doses supposed to combat COVID-19, along with the shipping out of large stocks of vaccines to foreign destinations for attracting global focus on the image-conscious Modi. It was only when vaccine shortage became acute and public pressure mounted that Modi govt. came forward with a revised Covid Vaccine Policy on April 19.
The revised policy, in the guise liberalising the availability of vaccines, has completely overhauled the existing procurement of vaccines from the two private players, viz., Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. Henceforth (from May1 onward), their supply will be divided into two baskets: 50 per cent for the Centre, and 50 per cent for the open market through which state governments, private hospitals, and industries that have facilities to administer the vaccine, will be able to procure doses directly from manufacturers. Revealingly, after this strategy was announced by Modi, it was immediately followed by the Serum Institute of India (SII) on April 21 announcing the revised prices for its vaccine — Rs 400 per dose to state govts, and Rs 600 per dose to hospitals (Bharat Biotech and Dr Reddy’s which will distribute the Russian Sputnik V shot have not made an announcement so far). Adar Poonawalla CEO of SII has openly declared about his interest in supplying vaccine specifically to private hospitals rather than to state govts, since it is not mandatory to sell through them as per the new policy. Further, based on the new policy, foreign pharma giants will be free to directly sell their vaccines in the open market at prices decided by them!
Thus, in conformity with its far-right, pro-corporate orientation, by compelling the state governments and hospitals to procure vaccine at prices determined by corporate pharma companies, Modi regime has deregulated the Covid vaccine production, pricing marketing and distribution in India leading to the opening up of new avenues of black marketing, hoarding and exclusion of the vast majority poor and weaker sections from vaccination altogether. Its immediate outcome is a collapse of state finances too. Observers have already pointed out that with the possible entry of middlemen into the scene, the price of a dose of vaccine in the open market controlled by vaccine mafia may immediately go up to Rs.1000. Though there are a number of public sector vaccine companies which are capable of producing Covid vaccine, Modi has confined them to the production of traditional vaccines only in which corporate pharma companies have little interest. Along with the announcement of revised vaccine policy, Modi has offered an advance of Rs. 3000 crore to SII and Rs. 1500 crore to Bharat Biotech, which if allotted to well-established public sector vaccine companies like Haffkine, Central Research Institute, Pasture Institute, BCG Vaccine Laboratory, HBL Integrated Vaccine Complex , etc. would have yielded enough vaccines affordable to common people. But a regime bent on demolishing public sector cannot do that. Chapter XVI of the Indian Patents Act empowers the govt to intervene in emergency situations and revoke the patent right granted to a company if it is reluctant to make the invention available to the public at affordable prices. Obviously, a corporate-bootlicking regime cannot resort to such Compulsory Licensing provisions of the Indian Patents Act for bringing the private players under social control.
Ironically, in many developed capitalist countries including the US where healthcare is highly privatised, people are vaccinated for free and the regimes there are reluctant to deregulate the vaccine industry. In view of the second wave of Covid, many companies there have announced distribution of vaccine “on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.” On the other hand, with Modi’s deregulation of Covid vaccine business, the Indian private pharma giant SII is going to gobble up 2.5 to 3 times the profit since May 1. Thus, with its new Covid vaccine policy, Modi regime has unfolded itself as the most reactionary and anti-people one in the world. By allowing vaccine mafia to reap super-profits amid the pandemic that ravages the whole country and transforming it into a ‘hell’, Modi regime has become a ‘merchant of death’. In this context, we appeal to all to come forward upholding the universally accepted right to free vaccination as people’s fundamental right to live. The political task at this juncture is to build up a broad unity against this regime that has left people to the mercy of corporate vaccine mafia.
CPI (ML) Red Star
24th April 2021