India Inc may be allowed to procure Covid-19 vaccines for its employees

The Union government will consider a plan to allow companies, especially large ones in strategically important businesses, to strike direct deals with Covid-19 vaccine developers to secure doses for their employees, officials familiar with the matter said, detailing the current thinking in policy circles about the country’s vaccine plan.

The officials, who asked not to be named, added that much of India’s vaccine plan will be funded by the state and cost around Rs 50,000 crore; they also confirmed what most experts and analysts have been saying — that not everyone in India will be able to get a shot in 2021.

The officials explained that the plan to allow companies secure vaccine doses is being considered because the government wants to ensure there is no disruption of key economic activities.

The proposal, they emphasised, has to be cleared by the Prime Minister’s Office.

If approved, this special window for India Inc will be available in an otherwise tightly monitored vaccine programme with limited supplies and clear priorities — health workers, patients with co-morbidities and the aged population may get a shot first.

A separate channel for India’s industry majors is pitched as critical as the country is scrambling to push its economy after the first quarter’s domestic production contracted by 23.9%, raising questions about the Modi government’s management of Covid and the economy. The Centre has so far declared four stages of graded “unlocking” before announcing “re-opening” of activities on October 1. But while all industries have reopened, many are working below capacity due to lower demand.

To be sure, the authorities are yet to take a call on which companies will be eligible to buy directly from vaccine makers — but the officials hinted that those in key sectors such as petroleum, steel, pharma, cement and coal might be allowed to. This will also reduce the financial pressure on the Centre. “Their usage of vaccines will be under the overall, centralised monitoring of the Union government and data on the vaccinations will be collected and stored by the Centre too,” said an official.

The government is putting in place logistics and infrastructure across India for a possible launch of vaccines by early next year. It is in touch with the states, potential vaccine makers and other stakeholders to draw a plan for distribution and administration of Covid vaccines. The challenge is that many of them will have to be transported in frozen form; and the others will require refrigeration.

The British-Swedish company AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford’s candidate, co-produced in India by Serum Institute of India, is in third phase of trails. Indian drug maker Zydus Cadila has launched phase 2 trials for Covid vaccines on August 6. Another domestic pharma firm Bharat Biotech started its phase 2 trials from September.

The expert group on a Covid-19 vaccine, headed by Niti Aayog member (health) Dr VK Paul and co-chaired by Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan is also closely watching the vaccine development programmes in the US, Russia, Israel and Germany.

US’s Moderna and Novavax, German company BioNTech (with Pfizer and Fosun pharma), pharma giant Johnson & Johnson and two Chinese drug farms are in the phase 3 trials and racing to launch the coveted vaccine. Russia’s Sputnik V and a Chinese Sinovac have already got emergency approvals for limited use in respective countries.

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