It was the Narendra Modi government’s deliberate and concerted decision to deliver free Covid-19 vaccines to everyone in India unlike other countries where vaccines were sold at exorbitant prices, Dr Balram Bhargava, former director general of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), has said.
“The issue of the pricing of vaccines in India was a deliberate effort of the government to be able to deliver this vaccine free of cost to every citizen,” he said on being asked his views over American vaccine giant Moderna’s expensive price tags for selling Covid-19 vaccines.
Bhargava, also the former secretary of the Department of Health Research, said it was not the first time when an Indian government was distributing vaccines free of cost. “Traditionally, India has been giving childhood vaccines free of cost for the last many years. Therefore, it was a concerted decision of the government to be able to supply these vaccines free of cost to all our citizens,” Bhargava said in an interview around History TV18’s documentary ‘The Vial – India’s Vaccine Story’ on India’s Covid-19 vaccination drive that aired at 8pm on Friday.
India has been running a successful universal immunisation program for more than 60 years, with more than 28,000 vaccination centres across the country. India is also the largest exporter of childhood vaccines to many parts of the world, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations (UN).
Bhargava, who is a cardiologist and medical innovator, said when the world was battling against the outbreak of Covid-19, India was ahead of many developed and developing countries in terms of conducting a successful vaccination drive.
The reason was, he said, “the whole of the government approach, the whole of society’s approach and active participation from civil society, political leaders and community leaders. The government played a very important role”.
He credited Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the top leadership for giving the right message to the Indian public.
“The leadership role was stellar and most critical in addressing the uptake of the vaccine as well as hesitancy of the vaccine. That (the impact of right messaging) clearly demonstrated how our population did not show any resistance or hesitancy in taking vaccines,” he said.
Not only messaging but the government worked on the ground, playing a major role in proving support to pharmaceutical companies.
“Tremendous support was provided to these firms. Starting from the conceptualisation of the vaccine development stage to the facilitation of vaccine testing in small animals or large animals to clinical trials and then, facilitating approvals. Again, major support was provided by placing advance purchasing orders.”
On being asked why the vaccines manufactured by China failed to prove efficacy among their citizens, he explained that China had followed the “Zero Covid Policy” and they stuck to it with large lockdowns.
“This is the major reason why hybrid immunity did not develop in the citizens and therefore, vaccines did not work.”
But India, he said, did not have such a policy. “We vaccinated and therefore hybrid immunity developed,” he said.
Bhargava added: “Making of the Covid-19 vaccine story is a classic example where Public-Private Partnership demonstrated that India can become self-sufficient in vaccine making… and several other complex situations… This kind of model should be replicated in other sectors and is being replicated so that India becomes a self-sufficient and developed country to reckon with.”
Addressing the issue of dependency on China for drug manufacturing, he said the raw material issue in the pharmaceuticals sector has been discussed over the years. “The government ensured that the country should become self-sufficient in the production of raw materials and in the production of APIs (Active Pharmaceuticals Ingredients or bulk drugs) so that we do not have to depend on other countries, whether it’s Western countries or China or any other country.”
Bhargava said: “It cannot happen overnight but it’s happening gradually and the government is playing a major role in making it happen.”
Globally, he said, the world’s perception is that India is on the verge of becoming a major developed democracy.
“It is the largest democracy in the world and now it is on the verge of becoming a developed economy with the demonstrated self-sufficiency in the vaccine sector and exports of the vaccines to many parts of the world. India has established that it will be a major force to reckon with in the near future.”
About the documentary, he said, it is a crucial piece of work which showcased important aspects of vaccine development, delivery and uptake in the country. It is a must-watch for the entire population and a matter of pride for Indian citizens.
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