The India Cable: In Seller’s Market, Pharma Companies Don’t Buy Modi’s Vaccine Cop-Out

Plus: Two shots needed to protect against virus variant, Ramdev rapped gently on knuckles, huge shortfall of rural specialist docs, women cricketers still scorned, unique Old Delhi haveli up for sale

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
May 24, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India officially crossed the mark of 3 lakh deaths yesterday. Of these, one-third or a 100,000 occurred in the past 26 days. In the past 24 hours, India has officially reported 2,22,315 new cases and 4,454 deaths.

The Indian government’s mismanagement of vaccine policy may have caused a severe crisis in poor countries. The image-conscious Modi government cannot stave off the bad press. An expert has toldthe Financial Times, “I don’t think India would be in a position to come back to its original role as an exporter of vaccines.” Meanwhile, Kerala’s approach in India makes it look like another country, the New York Times reports. 

The Centre’s vaccine policy comes a cropper every day. It asked states to bargain independently and source their own vaccines. Now, Moderna has declined Punjab’s request to sell directly to the state. Earlier, Pfizer had also said it wanted to deal with the Centre. The Delhi government has met with a similar response. As the virologist Gagandeep Kang said, “The rest of the world has been buying vaccines at risk for a year, so where’s the supply for us to go now and say we want to buy vaccines?” The Times of India says that the government has virtually ruled out the possibility of using compulsory licensing to ramp up vaccine production due to “implementation challenges”. Why the IP and manufacturing recipe for Covaxin can’t be shared with other Indian companies given that the Indian Council of Medical Research helped Bharat Biotech develop it is a mystery,

ASHA workers across India are going on strike today against governments not supplying them with PPE kits, and paying them the bare minimum during the pandemic. Twelve Opposition parties yesterday issued a statement in support of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha’s (SKM) call for a national protest on Wednesday to mark six months since the start of the farmers’ protest. They called on the Centre to give up obduracy, talk to the unions and repeal the contentious farm laws.

Four resident doctors were arrested in Jhansi, UP, for trying to present a memorandum to the chief minister. But they like changing names over there, and the UP Police called the arrests vaarta, or conversation. The doctors were let off, eventually. And while administrations are accused of going easy on testing to make the numbers look better, those in Bengaluru are now accused of criminally aggressive testing. 

A doctor in Kerala recited an Islamic prayer for a Muslim Covid-19 patient on deathbed. Dr Rekha Krishnan, a Hindu by faith, chanted an Islamic prayer she picked in the UAE, which is often recited by people from the Muslim community to believers who are in extremis.

Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park will get eight African cheetahs as part of India’s first inter-country big cat relocation project. The translocation of the big cats from South Africa begins more than a decade after the proposal was first mooted in 2010 by the Centre. The Asiatic cheetah was declared extinct in India in 1950.

The Centre and the states stare at a Rs 2 trillion GST cess gap. The economy remains slumped and collections are set to fall. 


Bad policies fuel rural surge

As Covid spreads in rural India, crumbling health infrastructure fails to cope. Shortfalls in basic facilities and essential personnel haunt the vast network of health centres and district hospitals. Persistent neglect of healthcare exposes poor governance in rural Bihar. The poorest regions of Bihar and neighbouring districts of UP expose skewed priorities.

Making vaccination appointments online only has made matters worse in rural India. Only 1.04 lakh of the targeted 2.5 lakh panchayats in the country have WiFi hotspots installed under the Bharat Net project. Only 65,000 of them are operational. According to government data, there are only 15.5 lakh active users of Wifi and FTTH (fibre to the home) in nearly 65,000 panchayats where hotspots are operational. 


Single jab only 33% effective against B.1.617.2 but India sets 16 week wait for second

Just as India, with its ever-changing vaccination rules, has ordered a three-month gap between two shots of vaccines, a UK study has revealed that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines work well against the B.1.617.2 variant first discovered in India, but after two jabs rather than one. The finding is significant for India, which is not only heavily reliant on Covishield — the local brand of the AstraZeneca vaccine — for about 90% of vaccination, but also because genome analysis reveals that B.1.617.2 is becoming the dominant variant here. The only problem: the Indian government last month decided that it was OK for Covishield recipients to wait as long as 16 weeks for the first jab. That’s bad news for those with only one dose as the UK study showed that the first shot was only 33% effective against the highly communicable variant currently racing around India.


Harsh Vardhan gently slaps Baba’s wrist 

Yoga televangelist and businessman Ramdev’s public comments trashing allopathy and doctors got a sharp and unyielding response from medics, and in a no-holds-barred statement, the Indian Medical Association insisted that action be taken. Ramdev denied he called allopathy “a stupid science” but the Centre, which is being hauled over the coals for its pandemic mismanagement and its patronage of gurus and godmen, was forced to issue a letter to Adarneeya Baba Ramdev ji. The health minister “requested” that he take back the statement. Ramdev said he was “withdrawing” remarks in which he said more people died of modern medical treatments during the Covid-19 crisis than the coronavirus itself. But why was the Epidemic Diseases Act not invoked, when people have been slapped with FIRs only for stating the obvious about the oxygen shortage? The minister’s polite tone offers an unpleasant contrast with the nastiness in his missive to a former prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, when he offered constructive suggestions. And Vardhan has yet to oppose the various bovine excreta ‘remedies’ Ramdev and others have been pushing through the media.

In an unrelated and sad development, Sunil Bansal, head of the dairy business of Ramdev’s Patanjali, has died of “Covid complications”.


Police get to grips with wrestler

For three weeks, the Delhi Police have been hot on the heels of double Olympic medallist wrestler Sushil Kumar, who had been on the run ever since his name came up in the murder of 23-year-old former junior national wrestling champion Sagar Dhankhar. Sushil has now been sent to six days in police custody, along with a co-accused, Ajay. Ironically, he was arrested on International Wrestling Day. That is a bit of a chokeslam.


The Long Cable

In a seller’s market, pharma companies don’t buy Modi’s vaccine cop-out

MK Venu

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to face more international embarrassment over his vaccine policy muddle. His controversial decision ― widely seen as abdication of responsibility ― to let 29 Indian states individually buy vaccines from global producers, is about to boomerang on India. Global pharma companies like Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson do not feel the need to negotiate separately with each Indian state. They have conveyed their preference to deal with a single entity. In effect, they want the Centre to aggregate the requirements of the Indian states and negotiate on their behalf.

The first indication came when global bids invited by states like Maharashtra did not receive any response. US vaccine maker Moderna told Punjab that it would prefer to talk to the Centre directly, rather than respond to a state tender.

The global bidding system works perfectly in a buyer’s market where a few large buyers are chased by many sellers who compete hard to win contracts. But vaccines are a seller’s market, where over 150 nations are on a desperate buying spree to vaccinate their populations as quickly as possible. There are very few sellers globally, and production capacity to enable rapid mass vaccination is limited. So global vaccine companies have little patience or time to deal with the Indian states. Only direct negotiation with sovereign national governments is being encouraged.

Oddly, and inexplicably, India is the only country where the sovereign state has split itself into 29 entities, and each is separately negotiating to buy vaccines. In sharp contrast, the African countries have formed the African Union Trust, which is collectively negotiating to buy up to 220 million doses from Johnson & Johnson. Even the European Union is negotiating collectively on behalf of 27 EU nations. But PM Modi chose the opposite logic and now, global vaccine companies are forcing him to see sense. India’s foreign minister is in the US to discuss this impasse with US business associations, which have formed a task force to help ‘atmanirbhar’ India deal with the devastating second wave.

US vaccine companies are still in the process of fulfilling the requirements of their domestic population, including stockpiling inventory. Their capacities will be free only after a few months. So all the big overseas supply commitments made by US pharma majors can be delivered only after July. In the near term, India will have to make do with existing supplies of Covaxin, Covishield and Sputnik V.

There is still very little clarity on how the Centre will make available 2.2 billion vaccine doses in the five months between August and December, as announced recently by Dr VK Paul, head of India’s Covid task force.

No one in the government has offered any clarity on how many of the 2.2 billion doses will be domestically produced, and how much imported. The Modi government finds the math burdensome, and is fuzzy on the details. The chart issued last month, incredibly, included vaccines that are still at the trial and development stage. Citizens have a right to look at such numbers closely and demand answers, because their lives depend on it.

Some intelligent speculation is possible. Dr Suchitra Ella, co-promoter of Bharat Biotech, told India Today on Friday that her company would have three vaccine manufacturing facilities, in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Ankleshwar, up and running in some months. They would produce a little over 1 billion doses of Covaxin a year. This translates to roughly 100 million doses a month. One assumes that this scale-up will happen in the next few months. 

Union minister Nitin Gadkari said he has been informed that the government will have up to 12 manufacturing facilities to produce Covaxin. Note that the promoter of Bharat Biotech has only spoken of three production facilities, and said nothing about allowing licensed production via technology transfer to another seven or eight entities. Something may be going on between Bharat Biotech and the Centre which we do not know yet. One of the very many other things that we do not know about the pandemic.

The Serum Institute of India has also talked about scaling up production to roughly 120 million doses a month after July. Assuming that at some point, Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute each start making over 100 million doses a month, we would still need Sputnik V and imports to fill the gap which remains if the year-end target is to be reached. To make available the 2.2 billion doses promised in five months from August to December, we would need a little over 400 million doses a month. We don’t have a clear idea of how much Sputnik will produce in India. 

So India may still have to buy several hundred million doses from US pharma companies to fulfil the commitment of delivering 2.2 billion in five months. This seems like a tall order. We’ll wait and see what news foreign minister S Jaishankar brings from the American pharma companies. 

But even if Jaishankar manages to get some medium term supply commitment, an acute vaccine shortage over the next two to three months remains an insuperable problem. And this shortage is undoubtedly a direct consequence of Modi’s failure to pre-order in volumes from vaccine manufacturers between November 2020 and January 2021. Modi will never be able to live this down, no matter how his doctors spin it. 


Reportedly

The UAE’s Princess Latifa, who was, according to a UN report and UK court finding, abducted and returned to UAE by Indian special forces commandos as she sought to escape her father, is in the news again. A photograph posted this week on two public Instagram accounts purports to show the daughter of the ruler of Dubai, who has not been seen or heard from in months. In mid-February, BBC Panorama broadcast secret video testimony from her in which she said she was being held hostage and feared for her life. Now, BBC has said that the appearance of the image is not random or accidental, but is related to other “undisclosed developments”. In a statement, David Haigh, co-founder of the Free Latifa campaign group, said: “We confirm that there have been several potentially significant and positive developments in the campaign.” So the princess may be on the way to a fairytale ending? 


EWS post for minister’s brother

The appointment of UP Basic Education Minister Satish Chandra Dwivedi’s brother at a university under the economically weaker section quota has sparked a controversy. Siddharth University Vice-Chancellor Surendra Dubey said they would initiate “penal action” if Arun Dwivedi’s EWS certificate was found to be fake. Arun Dwivedi was appointed assistant professor in the Psychology Department under the EWS quota on May 21. The vice-chancellor said at the time of his appointment, he did not know that Arun was the minister’s brother, and learned of it through social media.


Army CO seeks actor Sonu Sood’s help

The Army termed a commanding officer in the Western Sector who sought assistance from Bollywood actor and philanthropist Sonu Sood as “over-enthusiastic”, though well-intentioned. The CO had apprised Sood about plans for a 200-bed Covid care centre at the Jaisalmer military station.


Deep Dive

The Rural Health Statistics published by the National Health Mission under the Union Ministry of Health for 2019-20 tell an  appalling story. For example, Uttar Pradesh needed 2,844 specialists but had just 816 in place; Rajasthan needed 2,192 but had 438; Madhya Pradesh needed 1,236 but had a mere 46. The Gujarat Model isn’t working either – the state needed 1,392 specialists, but only 13 were in place. 


Prime Numbers: -8%, 212
The economist Prof Kaushik Basu set social media on fire on Saturday, pointing out that in terms of GDP growth in 2020 (-8%) and the number of Covid deaths per million (212), India is the sick man of Asia. Even earlier, Basu has expressed surprise at the collapse of the former economic and vaccine manufacturing powerhouse.  

In cricket, women still scorned

The Telegraph, London, reports that India’s women cricketers have not been paid prize money owed to them from the 2020 Women’s T20 World Cup, which ended more than 14 months ago. For reaching the final, India’s players should have collectively received $500,000. But that money is still held by the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI). 

The Board is already under fire for consistently displaying a bias against women cricketers. BCCI’s annual contracts for men and women cricketers highlight the yawning gender pay gap once again. The highest grade for women’s cricketers has a retainer of Rs 50 lakh while the lowest grade for men’s cricketers is worth Rs 1 crore.

The Indian women’s cricket team will compete in its first ever day-­night Test, with a pink ball, from September 30 to October 3, when it tours Australia this year. The match will be played in Perth. And Indian women will be playing their first Test matches in seven years when they travel to England in June.


Op Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Avay Shukla writes that “Narendra Modi has burnt every bridge, antagonised every peer and decapacitated every institution” which could have helped him cross the troubled waters he now has to negotiate.

  • Today, there is a rural livelihood story and a rural Covid story, and the former has greater long-term implications, writes Sevanti Ninan. Both had remained largely invisible until bodies washed up on the banks of the Ganga, and drew the attention of reporters.

  • Rural India is as yet unmapped in the virus’s cartography, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

  • The common thread running through the countries that successfully dealt with the pandemic is good leadership. There were other qualities as well: humility, transparency, efficiency and compassion. All five are missing in India, writes P Chidambaram.

  • AS Paneerselvan writes that journalism provides the space to articulate diverse ideas and this space cannot be surrendered to bad faith campaigns. In order to preserve their independence and vibrancy, newsrooms need to take motivated campaigns to task.

  • Dunu Roy writes that when Dinesh Mohan returned to India in 1979 to take up a job with IIT Delhi, he immediately got involved in the intense debate on science led by stalwarts like PN Haksar, Raja Ramanna and PM Bhargava, which resulted in the classic Statement on Scientific Temper that was released in 1980. He was probably the youngest scientist to sign it. Subhashis Banerjee remembers Mohan’s contributions to urban transportation, his forte.

  • Indian English is a Prakrit, not a creole, says linguist Peggy Mohan. She also speaks of the circumflex consonant, the unique marker of Indian speech, Dravidian or tribal verb endings absorbed by Sanskrit, and the intriguing idea that we could be the Harappans.


Listen Up

India succeeded beyond all expectations in mobilising large-scale electoral participation, especially among poor and illiterate voters, in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet today, its very existence seems to hang in the balance as the country faces a deep crisis of democracy. Yogendra Yadav and Shalini Randheria of the Albert Hirschman Centre of Democracy discuss the crisis.


Watch Out

Psychiatrist Dr Mohan Agashe’s lifelong study of the mysteries of the mind has spilled over into his other profession as a celebrated stage and screen actor. Agashe has been balancing psychiatry and performance since the 1970s. He has produced and stars in the Marathi film Dithee, which is about handling bereavement. It turned out to be debut director Sumitra Bhave’s final project. The 78-year-old director died of a lung ailment on April 19. 


Over and Out

Chunnamal Haveli, the sprawling property in Old Delhi of a Punjabi Khatri trader who made a killing supplying the British forces in 1857, is up for sale. But Lala Chunnamal is also credited with buying and holding in trust the Fatehpuri Masjid nearby, until Muslim citizens were allowed back into the area. The house in Katra Neel (Indigo Street), the old fabrics market, was built in 1864.

Colgate is adopting MIT Professor Kripa Varanasi’s technology which prevents the wastage of millions of tons of consumer products like toothpaste, which remain stuck in packaging. “We are transforming toothpaste packaging, which has been in tubes for more than a century,” LiquiGlide co-founder Kripa Varanasi said. The IIT, Madras alumnus research group has created a slippery film to coat the inside of packaging with.

Decades after radio shows like Binaca Geetmala ceased to connect the nation, the pandemic has brought back the power of the human voice. In Silchar, inspired by fellow singer Lopamudra Mitra, popular singer Bikramjit ‘Bauliya’ (a nod to Baul singers) has shared his phone number on social media, with an offer. Covid patients in isolation who call in are treated to a special honour ― a concert for an audience of one


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.