With days to go before the Centre kick-starts Phase-3 of India’s mammoth COVID-19 vaccination programme, uncertainty over the new vaccine policy, a spike in turnout and a shortage in Covaxin doses have strained Tamil Nadu’s vaccine rollout.
Days ago, vaccine manufacturers Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech announced differential pricing for future vaccine procurements. States will pay between Rs 400 and 600 per dose, while private hospitals pay between Rs 600 and 1,200 per dose. Before these prices take effect, most hospitals in Chennai have seen a higher-than-usual turnout.
However, vaccine stocks were hard to come by as several sites reported little to no stocks of Covaxin. some even claimed that the situation had been like this for the last few days.
“We are out of Covaxin; we don’t have it,” said Dr Arun Kalyanasundaram, Director, Promed Hospital, adding, “Covishield is the only vaccine we are administering other than people who are coming back for Covaxin as their second dose.”
Hospitals look to double vaccination capacity
The pressure on vaccine stocks comes at a time when hospitals are looking to double vaccination capacities for Phase-3, amid a new and uncertain vaccine policy. “We are expecting a thousand per day at Kauvery,” said Dr Iyappan Ponnuswamy, Medical Director of Kauvery Hospital, which has been vaccinating between 300 and 500 per day since the vaccination programme began.
“We are prepared for it, but we aren’t clear on the government policy,” Dr Ponnuswamy added. “What will be the pricing? Where will supply come from?” With the Centre requesting the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech to review vaccine prices, hospitals are waiting and watching, before committing to stocks.
The problem has been compounded by the Tamil Nadu government requesting the Centre to bear the cost of vaccinating those in the age group of 18 to 45 years— an exercise that the state says it is unwilling to do since the Centre has made budgetary allocations for vaccine procurement and rollout.
TN preparing to vaccinate 2 crore
Irrespective of who fits the bill, Tamil Nadu has already begun preparing to vaccinate two crore people between ages 18 and 45. However, by its own admission, whether or not manufacturers can meet this demand is a whole other story — especially in the face of supply constraints.
“We are initially planning to order 1.5 crore with both suppliers — Covishield around 1.25 crore and 25 lakh to Covaxin,” said J Radhakrishnan, Principal Secretary (Health). “But whether they are able to supply... We will have to see once we place the orders and get the response.”
Reacting to complaints over shortage in Covaxin doses, Radhakrishnan admitted that there were constraints with the vaccine’s rollout.
‘Covaxin, 1/7th of total vaccine supply’
“Covaxin is always one-seventh of our supply,” he said, “When you look at a state-level picture you feel you have sufficient stock for four or five days, But when you distribute it to many centres there arises a shortage.”
However, that isn’t the end of the problem with Covaxin administration. “We want to reduce vaccine wastage,” Radhakrishnan said, adding, “While Covaxin comes at 10-dose vials now, it was a 20-dose vial earlier. This meant that eight out of 20 doses could end up going to waste if people don’t turn up. So, we try to rationalise Covaxin by sending it to only those sites that are assured of administering all or most of it.”
For the moment, the uncertainty over vaccine procurements and rollout continues. But with just days to go for Phase-3 of India’s big vaccination drive, hope remains that bottlenecks ease out and inoculation makes it past roadblocks.
First Published: IST