FRIDAY came as good news on two fronts in the country’s fight against Covid-19. One, the country got its third indigenous vaccine of Zydus Cadila, which will roll out from October. Second, there were nearly four crore vaccinations in a week ending on Friday.
At the Health Ministry’s office in Nirman Bhawan, there seems to be a new sense of purpose since Mansukh Mandaviya took over as Health Minister about one-and-a-half months ago. The Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat replaced Dr Harsh Vardhan, who otherwise was seen as an earnest and straight-forward Minister but one too devoted to seminars and conferences and letting officials take the lead in the narrative on Covid.
Mandaviya came with a clear brief from the Prime Minister at a challenging time in the fight against Covid — which involved learning from experience of the second wave, ensuring preparations for a possible third wave, increasing the pace of the vaccination effort, and exercise control.
The results seem to be showing already. The August 14-20 week saw nearly 3.97 crore vaccinations, the second-highest ever for any week since the June 19-25 week. India also hit its highest daily vaccination mark so far of 92.39 lakh vaccination doses on August 16.
A closer dialogue with the vaccine-makers has also come about, like Serum Institute’s Adar Poonawalla meeting the Health Minister in Delhi and Mandaviya appreciating Serum’s contribution to the vaccination exercise. Another key message, it is believed, has gone from the Minister to the Health Ministry team dealing with Covid — ‘check with the Minister before issuing statements regarding the pandemic and vaccination.’
“The sense of enterprise is very much apparent in the Minister’s way of working and everyone knows that the PM has sent him with a purpose,” a senior official in the Health Ministry told News18, pointing out specifically how the Minister took a meeting with the National Health Authority (NHA) soon after taking over and told them that the Ayushman Bharat Scheme needs to be scaled up massively.
With cases rising in Kerala and raising spectre of the third wave in the country rising from that state, Mandaviya first sent in a team to Kerala and followed it up with a visit himself to the state to meet Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and do a ground-check at the Medical college in Trivandrum.
Big Takeaway from Mandaviya’s Stint so Far
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) told News18 that the biggest takeaway from Mandaviya’s stint at the Health Ministry so far was the expeditious roll-out of the Rs 23,000 Crore Emergency Covid Response Package-2 (ECRP-2), which he has personally monitored with the states.
Within 15 days of taking over as Minister, Mandaviya released 15% of the central share of the scheme to states on July 22 and 35% more was released earlier this month. This package is key to preparation for any third wave and learning from the experience of the second wave that saw the country struggle for Oxygen and hospital beds.
“The PM wants no repeat of that situation,” the source said. Mandaviya in fact got many components added to ECRP-2, like having an ambulance in every block.
At the Health Ministry under Mandaviya, the talk is that there may not be a third wave of Covid unless a new mutation of the virus emerges. “The assessment is that both Delta and Delta-Plus variants are manageable with the present set of available vaccines. A new mutation however may complicate the situation,” an official at the Health Ministry said.
The addition of the world’s first DNA vaccine of Zydus Cadila to the arsenal is said to be a major development, with backing from government. “The world may want this vaccine soon and it is a game-changer. This vaccine will work on Children above 12 years too. It is India’s big achievement to have three indigenous vaccines of its own,” the official added. India may start vaccinating children from year 2022.
Carrying Experience from Earlier Role
Mandaviya carrying forward his experience of handling Covid second wave as Minister of State of Chemicals and Fertilizers also seems to be helping him in his present stint as both the Health and the Chemicals and Fertilizers Minister. Like the country now has a reserve stock of 50 lakh Remdesivir injections and export has started of the excess production as the country built its production capacities during the second wave.
Tocilizumab, which was so far imported from Switzerland, will be produced here soon in a version named Itolizuma by Sun Pharma. There is also much closer coordination between both ministries with the same Minister at the helm, as the ECRP-2 package also involves building stocks of medicines required against Covid.
A quick turnaround was done by Mandaviya on the 25% vaccine quota for private sector after it was realized that the uptake there was low and the quota was made optional for vaccine makers. A smoother working with other opposition-ruled states like Punjab has also resulted as Mandaviya promptly accepted the Punjab CMs request during a meeting to increase the vaccine quota of the state.
The motto seems to be increasing vaccination pace across states rather than entering into spats with states like one between Harsh Vardhan and Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot earlier this year on vaccine wastage. That said, facts have however been furnished to counter claims of Delhi government when it comes to that.
The major aim of Mandaviya remains completing vaccination of all the willing adults in the country by December this year and starting one crore daily vaccinations from early September. The effort here seems to be to focus on India’s own vaccine capacity of Covishield, Covaxin, Zydus Cadila and Biotech-E rather than depending on the foreign vaccine makers who besides indemnity are also seeking sovereign guarantees from India.
“Some foreign governments have suffered after giving such sovereign guarantees,” a source remarked, on the present approach. He added that India will also get its own vaccine for children in the form of Zydus Cadila.
Mandaviya, true to his Gujarati roots, has his eye firmly on a twin target — preparing in a fool-proof well for any third wave and complete the vaccination of adults by this end of this year. So far, it is so good.