Mr Javadekar, Are You Sure India Can Vaccinate All Citizens This Year?
Environment Minister's claim on a health crisis is neither backed by numbers nor by the health minister's statement
Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, on May 28, 2021, claimed that all Indians will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by December 2021.
"Bharat ka vaccination 2021 mein December ke pehle poora hoga (India's vaccination drive will be complete by December 2021)," said Javadekar.
He based his statement on data presented by the Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare last week. "Last week, in a press conference, the health ministry had given a blueprint on how India will get 216 crore doses and will vaccinate 108 crore people by December 2021," said Javadekar.
This is when the Union Minister for Health & Family Welfare Harsh Vardhan had himself not promised a fully vaccinated India last week. During a meeting on the COVID-19 situation with representatives of nine states and Union territories held on May 21, Vardhan had said that "by the end of the year, the country will be in a position to vaccinate at least all of its adult population".
Javadekar's claim was in response to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's criticism of the central government. Gandhi had said so far only 3% of the country's 130-crore population has received both doses of the vaccine.
To this, Javadekar said, "Rahulji, if you're concerned about vaccination, then pay attention to Congress-ruled states. There is a mess. They are not taking the quota given to them for 18-44-year-olds from May 1."
Can all be vaccinated by December?
To better understand if Javadekar's claim is something that can be expected, FactChecker checked if the environment minister's claim about a health crisis is backed by data.
An estimated 216 crore COVID-19 doses will be produced between August and December 2021, said Dr VK Paul, Member (Health) in NITI Aayog and Chair of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC), on May 13. This includes 75 crore doses of Covishield, 55 crore doses of Covaxin, 30 crore of Biological E, 5 crore of Zydus Cadila, 20 crore of Serum Institute of India's (SII) Novavax, 10 crore of BB Nasal vaccine, 6 crore of Gennova mRNA and 15 crore of Sputnik.
However, of the eight vaccines four (Biological E, Zydus Cadila, Genova Biopharma and Bharat Biotech Nasal) are in various phases of trial. SII's Novavax is yet to be approved. Covishield and Covaxin are the only vaccines currently being supplied and utilized in India, while Sputnik will only be available in the second week of June. India is also focussing on procuring vaccines from foreign vaccine providers such as Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson. But only Pfizer has offered 5 crore doses between July and October. Moderna's vaccines may be available only in 2022.
"Multiple rounds of discussions have happened with Pfizer, J&J & Moderna... Vaccines are in limited supply globally, and companies have their own priorities, game-plans and compulsions in allocating finite stocks," wrote Paul in a release on May 27 aimed at addressing myths and facts about the Centre's vaccination drive.
For Covishield, the Centre's target is to produce 75 crore doses between August and December. This totals to 15 crore doses per month and 50 lakh doses per day. But SII has decided to ramp up its production from 6.5 crore doses per month to 11 crore doses per month, which is 36.66 lakh doses per day between August and December. However, this still does not meet the 50-lakh daily vaccine production mark.
According to the central government, 55 crore doses of Bharat Biotech's Covaxin will be produced between August and December, which means 11 crore doses per month and about 36.6 lakh doses per day. As per Bharat Biotech's announcement on April 20, 2021, the company expanded its production capacity to 700 million or 70 crore doses annually which means 19.4 lakh doses per day. This again means Bharat Biotech nowhere close to the production mark set by the government.
According to Harsh Vardhan, India's current capacity for manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines is eight crore a month or 26.6 lakh doses per day in May and would be nine crore doses in June which is 30 lakh doses per day.
As per the Centre's 216 vaccine doses claim between August and December, India will have to ramp up its production to 43.2 crore doses a month and 1.44 crore doses per day which is nearly five times its current number.
"Going by what we have seen, vaccine manufacturers always overestimate their production capacity," Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, epidemiologist and public policy and health systems expert told FactChecker. "Scaling of vaccine production is not that easy. We can be assured that they will produce the vaccines but the timeline won't be as what they have projected. Even with the best of intentions they will fail to meet the timeline. It's a complex process. It requires various ingredients and raw materials that need to be sourced in."
According to Dr Lahariya, vaccine availability cannot be taken as an equivalent of vaccine delivery. "Vaccination of the entire population will not happen because there will be people who would still prefer to not get vaccinated. So mostly 70% of the population might get the vaccination, best case scenario, 80%. Currently we also do not know if a booster dose is required. If that happens, priorities will change to vaccinate the high-risk population once again. This could change the entire vaccine supply," he added.
India also exported 66 million vaccines to 95 countries. The last shipment was made on April 22, 2021. The central government including many BJP leaders later defended the export also called 'Vaccine Maitri' by pointing out that they were not goodwill gestures but licencing liabilities. Delay in ordering COVID-19 vaccines, resulted in the Centre eventually diverting stocks meant for export for use within the country. This "disproportionately impacted developing countries," wrote International Monetary Fund Chief Economist Gita Gopinath and colleague Ruchir Agarwal in a research piece.
And if India has to resume the exports, stocks may fall short again for Indian citizens. After a few months, when the supply increases, India will have to export vaccines again because of its commitment, Dr Lahariya concluded.