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Profits before people? Vaccine diplomacy: Why is Modi govt losing out globally


By Shobha Shukla, Bobby Ramakant, Sandeep Pandey*

Narendra Modi once said he is a Gujarati and understands business. As time passes his business model is getting exposed and he is becoming more shameless like any ordinary businessman. It is quite clear to the people that he is not withdrawing the three controversial farm laws because all the three laws are meant to benefit the private corporations at the cost of farmers.
In fact, the farmers’ movement has also openly targeted Adani and Ambani in addition to Narendra Modi as their enemies. Graphic flex banners are visible at the protest sites at Singhu and Tikri.
Modi government very smartly made changes in political donation rules. Donations could now be made in the form of electoral bonds through an opaque system. In the name of protecting donors, it was not possible to find out the details of donations made even under Right to Information Act, India’s transparency law.
In addition, for companies making political donations the limit of 7.5% on average profit of past three years was done away with. Under this new system the political parties are exempt from reporting any donation above Rs 20,000 to the Election Commission, a requirement otherwise, if it is received in the form of electoral bonds.
Farmers suspect that Bhartiya Janata Party has received huge donations from Ambani and Adani through this anti-democratic and unethical system created by it and therefore its hands are tied when it comes to considering repeal of the three farms laws.
The same quid pro quo system is on display in Covid vaccine purchases now. Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech are the new beneficiaries chosen by the Modi government. In times of unprecedented crisis when people are tormented to the extreme, the two private companies have announced the prices at which they will sell the vaccines to government and private hospitals.
The question is why is the government giving them a free hand? Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram has suggested that the government should invoke compulsory licensing and invite price bids from other pharmaceutical manufacturers to reveal the true cost of the vaccines.
Most opposition state governments have opposed this differential pricing system for central government (Rs 150), state governments (Rs 400 for Covishield and Rs 600 for Covaxin), private hospitals (Rs 600 for Covishield and Rs 1200 for Covaxin), and for foreign buyers. But BJP governments – like the one in Uttar Pradesh – has gone ahead and announced that it will procure 1 crore vaccines, half each from Serum and Bharat Biotech.
Why is Yogi Adityanath wasting precious public resources on arbitrary prices set by two companies? Why is he not asking the Prime Minister to procure the vaccines at a price at which they were sold so far, Rs 150 per dose, and supply to him so that his government can vaccinate people for free. Mass production is supposed to bring down prices. But defying this normal principle Serum and Bharat Biotech have increased their prices as their production capacities have gone up.
Adar Poonawalla, the new blue eyed boy of Modi, has announced that in order to save thousands of crores of state funds and countless lives by vaccination he is reducing the price at which the vaccine will be sold by his company Serum to state governments from Rs 400 to Rs 300 per dose. Isn’t it an admission that Adar Poonawalla is profiteering at the expense of public money and depriving people of life by escalating the price of vaccine? People expect from Adar Poonawalla to save more government money and more lives.
Let us not forget that 97% of research and development of Covishield was done by AstraZeneca/Oxford using public funding
Former Health Secretary . Sujatha Rao has questioned the wisdom of central government abdicating its responsibility and passing it on to state governments and private sector to inoculate a major chunk of population between the ages of 18 and 44 years. She finds it preposterous that state governments are expected to buy vaccines at rates decided by private companies.
Senior journalist Karan Thapar has accused the government of indulging in tactical game playing by first reaching an agreement with Serum Institute to buy 10 crore vaccines last year but placing an order for only 1 to 2 crores each time. This, when a sum of Rs 35,000 crores had been set aside for vaccination in the budget and unknown amount is lying with PM Cares fund.
The abysmally low rate of vaccination of the much touted ‘world’s largest vaccination programme’ is because of the government dragging its feet and trying to act smart. Looks like the businessman in Modi got the better of the statesman in him.
Modi government took credit earlier this month when it announced that from of May 1, 2021, everyone above 18 years of age in the country will be eligible to get a vaccine. 
But on April 23, 2021, Rajesh Bhushan, Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in central government wrote a letter to all the states and union territories that the vaccination for 18-44 years will only be available in private sector in the country (for which people have to pay of course), and if the state or union territory wants to offer it in government healthcare services then they will have to procure the vaccine at the inflated rate directly from the manufacturer(s).
Moreover, all over the world there is strong precedence when so many countries have pooled in their demands for medicines or diagnostics or vaccines for global price negotiations at the lowest possible rate to ensure that the same high quality of affordable medicines or diagnostics or vaccines are offered in all those countries. But Modi government is doing just the opposite to benefit the chosen corporations.
Let us not forget that 97% of research and development of Covishield was done by AstraZeneca/Oxford using public funding, due to which it was promised that the vaccine will be rolled out at no profit. But Adar Poonawalla wants to mint ‘super profit’ as told by him in a news.
Also, the essential part of research for Covaxin was done in government’s National Institute of Virology (an Indian Council of Medical Research institute), and then it was handed over to Bharat Biotech for further development. We wonder if the government owns the intellectual property rights for Covaxin because it was the government (and not Bharat Biotech) which chose additional manufacturer for Covaxin, Haffkine.
If it is so, then Modi government is losing a golden opportunity to scale higher standards of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ worldwide – it should immediately allow every other manufacturer within India and worldwide who wants to make Covaxin and help fight the pandemic. If the government fails to do so, then it will further expose its agenda of putting profits before people.
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*Shobha Shukla is with Citizen News Service (CNS); Bobby Ramankant is with CNS and Socialist Party (India); Sandeep Pandey, a Magsaysay award winning social activist, is with Socialist Party (India)

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