Supreme Court Bats For Vaccine Equity
People wait at an entry gate of a Covid-19 vaccination center at the Goregaon NESCO jumbo Covid centre in the Goregaon suburb of Mumbai. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Supreme Court Bats For Vaccine Equity

The Supreme Court of India on April 30 raised several critical questions with regards to the central government’s vaccination policy and emphasised there needs to be equity among the states when it comes to vaccine distribution.

The court asked the central government to detail the steps it intends to take to ensure that those without means and resources get access to vaccine. The top court bench, headed by Justice DY Chandrachud, told the government that it needs to ensure that the vaccine manufacturing capability is ramped up.

The bench also suggested that the central government should consider taking charge of vaccine procurement for the states.

The top court’s suggestions come at a time when the vaccination programme for 18-44 age group opens up on May 1. But a number of state governments, including some of the BJP-ruled states, have expressed their inability to open up the programme since they’ve not been able to secure vaccine supply.

Court Suggests Exploring The Idea Of Compulsory Licensing

During the course of the hearing, the top court inquired from the government whether it is considering the grant of a compulsory licence on manufacturing of essential medicines such as Remdesivir.

Under the Patents Act, a compulsory license can be issued by the government in public interest. This allows eligible companies to manufacture a patented product without attracting allegations of intellectual property infringement.

The bench proposed that the government can include a sunset clause in the license which will ensure it remains in effect only until the pandemic is over. Doha Declaration of TRIPS shows that member states can take such steps to protect the right of public health, Justice Chandrachud pointed out during the course of the hearing.

Why Can’t Central Government Take Responsibility Of Vaccine Procurement?

The bench asked the government about its plans to ensure vaccine access to the illiterate and those who may not have access to internet for registration. The vaccination process for individuals between 18-44 years at present requires mandatory online registration on the Cowin portal.

Further, the court also raised questions on vaccine pricing for the states and the central government. While the apex court didn’t issue any directions, it asked the central government to look into the issue of differential pricing. The court also suggested the government can consider procuring all the vaccines by itself and then de-centralising the distribution mechanism through the states. The suggestion was part of the court’s concern towards ensuring that there is equity between the states on access to vaccines.

‘’We cannot have a private sector model in a crisis of this magnitude. We have to follow the national immunisation model. Don’t leave it to the manufacturers. How can private manufacturers ensure equity.’’ - Supreme Court

Finally, the court also asked the government to share details of the direct and indirect grants which have been provided to the two vaccine manufacturers—Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. The court told the government the capacity of the two companies to manufacture the vaccine is now known and the government should ensure the manufacturing capacity is further ramped up.

Government Seeks Time To Respond

Representing the central government, Solicitor General for India Tushar Mehta told the court that some of the queries posed are new and sought time to respond in detail.

He also informed the bench the government isn’t taking this case as an adversarial litigation. Mehta also took the court through the steps being taken to augment oxygen production, including assistance to states which are facing logistical issues on transportation of oxygen.

The Supreme Court repeatedly made it clear that its observations were not a critique of the federal government or states but were more in the spirit of cooperation in effectively dealing with the situation.

The case also saw a number of parties coming up with suggestions such as using resources of companies which are currently lying ideal because of the insolvency proceedings going on against them. The bench asked the parties to submit their suggestions to the court appointed amicus curiae Senior Advocates Jaideep Gupta and Meenakshi Arora.

The top court posted the case for hearing next week by when the central government is likely to clear its stance on the queries posed by the bench.

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