New Delhi: In less than 48 hours, India will administer its first Covid-19 vaccine shot outside of a clinical trial under the national immunisation programme. However, the wait to buy the vaccine from a pharmacy could be a little longer.
Top government officials estimate it could be June or July before Covid-19 vaccines are sold in the market. This despite the fact that Adar Poonawala, CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII) that is currently the biggest manufacturer of a Covid vaccine in the country, said last week that the shots could be available at pharmacies as early as March.
“My assessment is it would take another six months for the vaccine to be available to anybody apart from the Government of India. That seems to be a realistic estimate right now. We will need 66 crore doses for the national programme to complete vaccinations of 30 crore people,” said a senior government functionary closely involved in the planning and roll out of the vaccination programme.
“If you look at the current manufacturing capacities, six months seems to be a reasonable time frame when the supplies would be sufficient for the national programme. It is only after that happens that private players — be it individuals or companies — can buy it,” the official added.
Vaccine stockpiles & distribution plans
SII has a stockpile of about 5 crore doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca developed Covishield. Of this, the government has ordered a first tranche of 1.1 crore doses. The company said that by February, it will have the capacity to manufacture about 10 crore doses per month.
Bharat Biotech, that is developing and manufacturing India’s indigenous vaccine Covaxin, has shipped out a first instalment of 55 lakh doses. In a media interaction last week, company chairman and managing director Dr Krishna Ella said Bharat Biotech has plans of manufacturing 70 crore doses in 2021 in its four facilities across the country. The company has a stockpile of about 2 crore doses.
To distribute the vaccines to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka or even Afghanistan, India has decided to follow the ‘HCQ model’. This means that while there is “no ban” on distribution of vaccines to other countries, there are “restrictions” to allow the government to procure and administer them to its public first.
The countries receiving the vaccine from India are those Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to supply the vaccines to.
In addition, SII has also made international commitments under the WHO’s Covax initiative that makes vaccines available to low- and middle-income countries.
‘Licensing of more vaccines crucial’
The official quoted above said that as companies build stockpiles, a clearer assessment on the feasibility of allowing sale to private entities may be possible in some weeks’ time.
“From a public health perspective, we are trying to ensure equitable distribution of all available vaccines. The situation will ease in the coming months, but a lot depends on how other vaccines come up — how soon Zydus gets clearance for its vaccine, when does Sputnik V complete trials and how soon Gennova comes up with a licensed product,” he said.
Russia’s Sputnik V is currently in phase 2-3 trials in India. Zydus just received clearance for phase 3 trials and Gennova is looking to start phase 2 trials of India’s very own mRNA vaccine, seed funded by the government’s Department of Biotechnology.
The health ministry is hoping that some of these candidates will get expedited approval.
At Tuesday’s Covid-19 briefing, health secretary Rajesh Bhushan said: “In the coming days, you may see some of these vaccines approaching the drug controller for emergency use authorisation.” However, even after the licensing process is complete, the limiting factor could be the availability of ready doses.