HE Supreme Court Friday flagged a series of issues from the production of Covid19 vaccines to its disbursal and pricing in its suo motu hearing about the government’s response to the pandemic.
It asked the Central Government why it was not buying all doses of vaccines produced, considering the gravity of the pandemic and since it was best placed to determine the equity in the distribution of doses to states.
“Do not leave the vaccine pricing and distribution to the manufactures. You need to pick up the responsibility and exercise your powers in the public interest”, Justice DY Chandrachud said to Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta.
Justice Ravindra Bhat said AstraZeneca was providing vaccines at far lower price to the US citizens then why should we be paying so much? Manufacturers are charging you Rs. 150 but Rs. 300 or 400 to States. Why should we as a nation pay this, Justice Ravindra Bhat said.
Justice Chandrachud joined Justice Bhat and said pricing issues were extraordinarily serious. “A large segment is poor and marginalised, we cannot have a private sector model. We must follow the national immunization model,” Justice Chandrachud said.
He asked the Centre why the top court should not authorize the use of the patents for government purposes under Section 100 of the Patents Act and/or to notify for compulsory licenses under Section 92 of the Patents Act, drugs such as Remdesivir, Facipuravir and Tocilizumab, especially given that such a direction would enable generics to manufacture these drugs without fear of legal action?
The bench also sought to know from the Centre when the disbursal of 50% of centrally procured doses would be communicated to the states and asked what the rationale for the differential pricing of central versus state procurement was?
“Can the Centre and state indicate the current and projected availability of vaccine stocks for the next six months with projections on its plans for vaccinating the population? Can an attempt at continual transparency be made through CoWin portals to avoid chaos in vaccine administration across the states”, the court asked the Centre?
The bench, which also had Justices L Nageswara Rao, sought to know whether the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech – currently the two vaccine manufacturers – would have to demonstrate equity in disbursing vaccines between states?
For example, the bench said, will one state be able to obtain priority access to the bulk of the vaccines while others have to wait? Can the Centre monitor procurement to ensure that its rationale for distribution is premised on the population, rate of infection and effective vaccine administration is adopted even for determining procurement by states?
The bench flagged the issue of shortage of vaccines even for the eligible age group i.e., persons above 45 years of age.
“By when does the Centre plan on issuing a communication to clarify availability and if walk-in-facilities will be allowed”, the bench asked.
The court wanted to know from the Centre whether it can file an affidavit on the exact breakup of vaccine distribution in proportion to the state population of 18-44 in order to ease out bargaining power inequities.
The court also flagged the issue of illiteracy in online registration for vaccination.
“How do the Centre and state governments enable vaccine registration for persons who are illiterate or do not have access to the internet?”, the Supreme Court asked.
The bench asked whether the current vaccine prices account for the inclusion of funds for production, infrastructure, and other aid provided by the Central Government? Can the Centre indicate the full extent of direct and indirect grant/aid that was provided for research, development and manufacture of vaccines?
Are the Centre and states making attempt to undertake targeted vaccination drives of crematorium workers and other coordinate groups who are providing on-ground assistance during the pandemic and were not considered as frontline workers in the first phase of vaccination, the Supreme Court asked.
The Court said it would hear the matter next on May 10 by which time the Centre could do a policy rethink on the issues flagged by it.