'When there is so much anxiety, the Government of India should assure people on the vaccine issue and help the states demanding more supply that they will be provided the required quantities.'
'Any Centre-state conflict at this point of time is counter-productive and enhances people's anxieties that should be avoided.'
K Sujatha Rao is the one you turn to if you want to know how to tackle the COVID-19 crisis in India.
For the last year, Rao, a former Union health secretary, has been giving interviews and writing articles highlighting how to fight the pandemic.
As vaccine shortages start hitting India, Sujatha Rao tells Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf, "Fear has once again gripped people in cities like Mumbai and hence the clamour for vaccines as a safety valve."
What can be done to overcome the vaccine shortage?
As per my information, there appears to be no cause for alarm as there is no shortage.
Inter-state utilisation differentials are there and within the states and some centres, there is a higher demand than others.
So some amount of redeployment of vaccines and more efficient use of vaccines is the need of the hour.
Secondly, from media reports, it appears that the two vaccine companies are seeking financial stimulus for ramping up production.
I feel this issue should be finalised as quickly as possible by the government so that as the uptake for the vaccine sets in, we are not stuck with any shortages.
If the demand for financial stimulus is genuine then there is no harm in the government facilitating that by way of grant or soft loan or whatever options that are most sustainable and viable.
But the companies must ramp up quickly.
Thirdly, it is also wise to look at other vaccine candidates -- if Johnson and Johnson and Sputnik are safe, fine and ready, then we should speed up the approvals and get the companies to start production.
We must remember that not only India's needs are large, but India will also need to supply other countries that do not have a manufacturing capacity.
Of course, the demand will always depend on the perceived risk and can never be guaranteed.
What about Covaxin, that doesn't seem to have been deployed much as per the data on Co-Win site?
As said, we need to finalise our negotiations with Covaxin in terms of the millions of doses they need to supply.
I don't think we should consider their request for export when we have huge unmet needs.
Moreover, with AstraZeneca having problems of adverse effects as reported from the Europe and the UK, it is better that we have alternate vaccines ready.
So more the suppliers, the better.
Do you think the Rs 250 price cap by the government on the vaccine is unfair to pharma companies?
As per information in the public domain, vaccines -- Covishield, not Covaxin -- seem to be effective barriers to transmission of the virus.
Their efficacy in that regard will take time.
Reports of persons getting Covid-19 even after taking two shots point in that direction.
But still I would advocate vaccination for all as the available evidence seems to suggest reducing severity of the infection and deaths as a consequence.
That's a huge gain and a worthy objective
So as a strategy to tackle today, we need to be aggressive on containment.
All events that have crowds like the election rallies or Kumbh Mela etc must be stopped as they can become super-spreaders.
No point blaming the people when the government itself is permitting such events.
Do you think we should have stopped exports and not sent vaccines to poor countries?
It is a commitment India has made to Covax.
We cannot and should not renege on that.
We have given around 10 million doses.
This goes to all poor countries who do not have manufacturing facilities.
It is an international obligation.
Our citizens too are important.
Ten million doses are not much out of the billions that India needs.
SII (The Serum Institute of India) stated that they have 80 million vaccines.
At that time there was low demand and so giving 10 million could not have hurt us.
Our need is huge and we have the capacity to ramp up.
But people in India have started saying why should we export the vaccine when we ourselves are falling short.
I agree that we need to take of our needs first.
But international obligations with the WHO (World Health Organisation) are not for commercial gains but an expression of global solidarity.
That said, export for commercial gain must not be allowed till our needs have been met.
Do you think a vaccine crisis can come up in the future?
It can come if you continue to raise demand by messaging the vaccine as a preventive tool -- that one will not get COVID-19 if one is vaccinated.
Such messaging can also give a false sense of security.
So we still need to focus on using masks and keeping a distance.
But as said, vaccines must be taken as they certainly help reduce the viral load and one can be asymptomatic or get away with very mild symptoms even if we get COVID-19.
We need to remember that severe bouts of infection are leaving scars that are taking long to heal.
People are in panic because cases have suddenly shot up and there is still no proven treatment for cure or for prevention.
So fear has once again gripped people in cities like Mumbai and hence the clamour for vaccines as a safety valve.
I feel at this moment when there is so much anxiety, the Government of India should come out and assure the people on the vaccine issue and help the states demanding for more supply that they will be provided the required quantities.
Any Centre-state conflict at this point of time is counter-productive and enhances people's anxieties that should be avoided.
In others words, all must get together by sinking political differences.
People only want to know when can they get the vaccine.
They too understand that there can be a delay in supply.
So information about that would be very helpful.