Dr Devi Shetty, one of India's most respected cardiac surgeons, said India must move quickly to buy at least 300-400 million doses of vaccines through one channel and rope in private hospitals to accelerate the pace of inoculation, as the second wave of Coronavirus ravages India.
"If we go to companies and say we want to buy 300-400 million doses, this is the money take it, they will give it to you, and these are vaccines that don't need a trial, they have been used on millions of people," Dr Shetty told Moneycontrol in an interview.
“One day of lockdown, how much is it going to cost us? The vaccine is the cheapest solution we have against COVID, we have to use it.”
Dr Shetty, the founder of multispeciality hospital chain Narayana Health, pressed for arranging final-year student nurses and medical students about to finish their courses into the fight against COVID to soften the stress and strain on medical personnel. The government agreed to the proposal.
The government opened up vaccination for all people above the age of 18 from May 1, but several states have paused the process for ages between 18 and 44 due to a shortage of vaccine doses. They have since begun using existing doses to inoculate those above 45 who are scheduled for their first and second dose.
Three Action Points
Dr Shetty’s three-pronged solution to hasten the pace of vaccination—buy as one, buy in bulk and rope in private hospitals—comes as various state governments have floated global tenders to buy COVID vaccines. Companies in the private sector have urged the government to liberalise vaccine import as the availability of vaccines continues to be a challenge.
At least 12 Opposition Parties wrote to Prime Minister Modi this week, with nine recommendations that include procuring vaccine globally, begin a free universal mass vaccination campaign and invoking compulsory licensing to expand domestic vaccine production.
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When asked about the centralised vs decentralised approach, Dr Shetty said, "I know a lot of people are criticising the government, but I can tell you, the number of COVID patients we have, (even) if we present this to the US government, there is no way they can manage it … forget any other country. These are astronomical numbers that no country in the world has the infrastructure to manage.”
He said the central government has done a phenomenal job and “moved heaven and earth to get the oxygen to the hospitals”. “Of course, a lot of people have suffered, but if the whole country is falling sick there is no healthcare infra in the world that can cope."
Steps To Hasten Vaccination
To quicken the pace of vaccination, India has to buy together, according to him. “Bulk order will give you huge leverage to negotiate the best price and unless these companies get money in advance they won't commit. We need at least five different vaccine manufacturers to come forward and say that you give me the money, we will deliver at this time.”
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Only those steps will not suffice. The government, said Dr Shetty, must open its doors for any country's vaccine company to come, set up shop, and sell it to India on the condition that they give vaccines in the next three months.
The urgency is critical because after three months, any such step may not make that kind of a difference, he said. “We may get 600 million or even 200 million, it is better than what we have today. We have to vaccinate young parents otherwise we will be in trouble,” he said.
As of May 12, 2021, India has administered over 17.7 crore doses of vaccination overall. Two approved vaccines are currently being given- Covishield (manufactured by Serum Institute) and Covaxin (developed by Bharat Biotech), with the third vaccine Sputnik V, set to be deployed from next week.
The Third Wave Is Coming
In the interview, Dr Shetty stressed that it is crucial to vaccinate parents of young children, as some virologists have said that the third wave of Coronavirus will impact children, as the virus mutates in the quest for new, susceptible pools of the population.
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"I feel we all should come together and have one vaccine procuring agency. We know the strength of the economy of scale. A country saying we need 300-600 million and saying we will give you money upfront, it is a different ball game," he said.
Dr Shetty underscored the role private hospitals will play in the vaccination drive. In terms of prioritisation and administration of vaccination, he said while government institutions have limitations, private hospitals have more flexibility to conduct massive drives.
"If I am given few million vaccines and told to vaccinate, I can do it for 26,000 people on one campus in 24 hours. I can manage double … I can even vaccinate at 2 am at night. If people are desperate enough to want vaccines, we will have a 24-hour shift,” he said.
“This is a war-like situation that needs a different game plan."