India to Open Private Vaccine Market With Shots for Elderly
A healthcare worker, right, administers a dose of Bharat Biotech Ltd. Covaxin vaccine for coronavirus at Sanjeevan Hospital in Daryaganj, New Delhi. (Photographer. T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

India to Open Private Vaccine Market With Shots for Elderly

India will start vaccinating people over the age of 60 and those above 45 who suffer from co-morbidities starting March 1, allowing the partial opening of a private market for shots as the government faces mounting criticism over the slow pace of its inoculation campaign.

In the latest round the government will allow those who fall in the appropriate age brackets to get vaccinated for free in state centers and for a fee at private health facilities, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters Wednesday after a meeting of the federal cabinet. The cost of shots at private centers will be decided over the next few days.

This is the first time that the South Asian nation, with the second-highest infection numbers in the world, has allowed private clinics to inoculate people at a cost since its vaccination drive started last month. It would also make it one of the first places globally to allow private sales of the shots.

Authorities in New Delhi have been under growing pressure from health experts and industry leaders to allow private hospitals and operators to sell the vaccines across the country of about 1.3 billion people. While the government will regulate the price -- there are concerns this may lead to vaccine disparities in a country with vast income inequality -- pushing millions who can’t afford to pay for the shot to the back of the queue.

India has vaccinated some 12.16 million health and frontline workers so far in the state-funded drive. The government will continue to provide free of cost vaccinations at state-run clinics, Javadekar added. The country has marked out some 10,000 government and another 20,000 private vaccination centers for the next phase starting Monday.

Slow Progress

The country hopes to vaccinate some 300 million by August but the pace of its immunization drive has so far lagged behind that target.

“Clearly, involving the private sector is the need of the hour and we have been demanding this for quite some time,” said Rijo M. John, an adjunct professor at the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences in Kochi. “The private sector will be in a position to increase the vaccination pace significantly. At the same time, the government should take adequate measures so that there is no over charging for the doses administered.”

At a conference in Bengaluru on Sunday attended by India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, billionaire Azim Premij, the founder of outsourcing firm Wipro Ltd., joined a number of tycoons and business bodies calling on the government to accelerate the vaccine drive by approving a private market.

India’s huge network of private clinics have already been involved in hosting vaccination sites for the state-led drive and have eagerly awaited approval to sell the injections.

Apollo Hospitals Enterprises Ltd., the country’s largest health care chain, has trained 6,000 people and designated 3,500 sites for an expansion of the inoculation campaign. Suneeta Reddy, the firm’s managing director, told Bloomberg Television last week “there is great potential to cover many more people.”

As a vaccine manufacturing powerhouse, many of India’s developers are also eager to recoup their costs in the private market. The Serum Institute of India Ltd., which has a license to churn out 1 billion doses of AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccine, has stated it plans to sell those shots for about five times what it charged the government.

Private firms “would definitely see a profit motive here,” said John. “This is why it is very important for the government to regulate the vaccine prices in the private market and use strict measures to implement the same,” adding that there had been instances of private sector over charging for Covid-19 tests.

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