The Union Health Ministry has said in response to an RTI application that it does not know where records related to agenda circulated in meetings of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 are held.
Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative had approached the ministry seeking details of the constitution and working of the expert group such as dates of meetings, a copy of the detailed agenda circulated in relation to every meeting, presentations made before its members, and material it had shared with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
Nayak had also sought to know the amount of sitting fees and every other remuneration or allowances payable to the chairperson and every member of the expert group and the amount of sitting fees and every other remuneration or allowances actually paid to them.
The National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC) was constituted under the chairmanship of Member (Health) of Niti Aayog V K Paul on August 7 to prepare a strategy for the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccine.
The information on these points was not provided by the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), saying the details of meeting, agenda and material circulated during the meetings do not come under the definition of "information" which can be shared under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
The CPIO said that details of the amount of sitting fees and every other remuneration or allowances payable to the chairperson and other members of the expert group are not available with the immunisation section of the ministry.
Nayak filed an appeal before a senior official in the ministry challenging the order of the CPIO. The official ruled that the CPIO does not have information and does not know where the information can be. The application was also transferred to the Indian Council of Medical Research and the MEA.
The ICMR said it does not have information sought by Nayak. On the NEGVAC material shared with it, the MEA cited exemption clause of national security and related issues to deny the records.
Nayak said both the CPIO and the first appellate authority not knowing about the physical location of NEGVAC's papers despite the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) servicing this body is "truly perplexing".
"How can people's meaningful participation be ensured if the MoHFW does not place in the public domain details of NEGVAC's working. There is a statutory requirement of proactive information disclosure under Sections 4(1)(c) and 4(1)(d) of the RTI Act about NEGVAC's working. MoHFW and other public authorities involved in the vaccination roll-out plan have a statutory duty to make all facts and figures public along with the underlying reasoning for their decisions and actions under these provisions," Nayak said.
He said he would approach the Central Information Commission to challenge "the actions and omissions of MoHFW and MEA".Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here.