Last year when the Covid pandemic was raging, Pfizer and Moderna offered their vaccines to India for $30 each on some drastic terms that the government refused to sign up for. Some months later, India told these vaccine makers that it was starting to export its own vaccines at $2.5 each, and they could buy them if they wanted to.
This year, India came together regardless of political affiliation to protest against the WHO’s estimate of 4.7 million excess Covid deaths in India. The Centre stuck to its stand that doing so was out of the global health body’s ambit and if it had to do so, it should have shown deaths per million, putting it on record at the World Health Assembly.
News18 spoke to top government sources who narrated these events in detail and how the Narendra Modi government decided to stand up to global vaccine giants in “national interest” and countered the WHO’s efforts “to put India down” despite India’s comparative better performance against Covid-19 than the West.
Pfizer and Moderna bargained, India went local
Rewind to last year around the time when the second wave was creating havoc in India as well as the rest of the world. Top government sources recall how there was immense pressure from all sides to buy Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, with the foreign manufacturers offering them at $30 each. “The government knew it would not be able to administer those expensive vaccines to each Indian,” a source said. But what bothered India more were their conditions.
“They wanted us to give a sovereign guarantee which meant that the vaccine that required -70 degrees Celsius storage, exported from the US, if any cold chain got disturbed (making the vaccine useless), the company had no responsibility. If anyone who got the vaccine faced any side effects or sued the company, these companies will not take any responsibility, rather it will be the responsibility of only and only the Indian government,” government sources said.
Also, as the vaccines were in emergency use and, meanwhile, if some major event took place (for instance, death or disability due to vaccine administration), these companies were seeking protection from India by asking that the Indian government fight cases in international courts. “Or if the company chooses to fight, India will bear their expenses. To ensure that such feuds would be taken care of by the Indian government solely, they also asked for a sovereign guarantee in which they sought the right to seize our properties,” the government sources further revealed.
It is then that India decided to call off these talks and union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya was sent on a four-day trip across the country to the factories of Biological E, Zydus Cadila, Bharat Biotech, and Dr Reddy’s. Mandaviya spent a day in each company and had a list of 25 questions for them to ascertain their strength, weakness, financial strength, and manufacturing capacity, sources say. The minister returned and the government arranged finances and raw materials, gave the companies advance payments, and helped them set up fill and finish capabilities. This led to an increase in the production of Indian vaccines by three times in just one month.
India then again invited the foreign vaccine makers asking them their possible vaccine delivery timelines, who said the first consignment could be given in November 2021. “We then told them that we will start our exports in October and that too for $2.5 per vaccine dose; if you need, you can buy. It was all about respect for our country which we couldn’t afford to let down. Their bargaining felt like selling our own country,” a source said.
India has done 199 crore vaccinations through its ‘made in India’ vaccines and will be reaching the record 200-crore mark this month.
WHO saw India’s pushback
A situation again emerged this May when the World Health Organization (WHO) said that 4.7 million people had died in India due to Covid-19, far more than the Indian government’s official figure of about 5 lakh deaths. India was perplexed why the WHO had done meetings with countries for three months across the globe and if it was to divert attention from the ongoing events in the other countries where people were still dying in the third wave.
A source said the WHO’s mandate is to encourage and promote best practices, improve poor health facilities, provide access to health facilities, identify new epidemics, find out treatments, and make those treatments affordable and accessible. “But it seemed they had to prove, anyhow, that India had a higher number of deaths considering that globally, everyone was praising India for good work in handling Covid-19. Just to put us down, the WHO did this exhaustive exercise,” a top government source told News18.
Sources said the government had given the WHO all the facts — that India had a proper system of registering births and deaths and the same has been compulsory since 1969, resulting in 99.9% of deaths being registered. The register said that in the Covid year, an excess of 9 lakh deaths had been reported against the regular average. Out of 9 lakh, 6 lakh deaths were attributed to Covid while the rest were due to non-registry, India told the WHO.
The Centre was in the midst of a three-day meeting with the state health ministers when the news of the WHO’s estimate of 4.7 million deaths in India came out. Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya told all the state ministers to forget their political affiliation and parties because “it is about the self-respect of India”, a source said. A unanimous resolution was signed by the health ministers of all states with Mandaviya assuring them that he would go to the World Health Assembly and tell them that whatever had been done was incorrect and clearly out of the WHO’s mandate.
“Even if the WHO had to do so, it should have shown deaths per million, but it did not,” a top government source said.
India felt that given its 1.3 billion population, huge diversity, and still being able to control Covid-19, this was something many people were not ready to accept. “This is while several other countries continue to jostle with Covid-19,” the source added.