A parliamentary panel meeting turned chaotic today as BJP members opposed any discussion on the vaccine policy for nearly an hour and even briefly left the meeting.
For the first 50 minutes, BJP members of the Science and technology panel objected to the circulated agenda, which was on the vaccine policy. While the panel was to discuss "the development of vaccines and the genome sequencing of Covid variants", questions on the differential vaccine pricing controversy led to political sparring.
The BJP MPs left the room but soon returned and rejoined the meeting. They said they had gone for discussions. When they returned, panel chairman and senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh reportedly assured that the meeting would stay on its original agenda.
Some opposition MPs, however, pressed on with questions on the disparity between the price at which the makers sold the vaccines and what people were paying for the shots. On Monday (June 21), India saw record vaccinations as the government's new policy of free vaccines to all above 18 kicked in. Before that, free shots were restricted only to those above 45. Vaccinations of those between 18 and 44, handled by states and private hospitals, were paid.
BJP MPs protested the question, asserting that the panel is related to the Science and Technology Ministry that is involved only in research and development.
"This ministry has nothing to do with the procurement of vaccines or their prices. There should not be any attempt to politicize the issue by raising such questions," a BJP MP reportedly said.
The BJP MPs claimed any discussion on vaccines at this stage "would affect the frontline workers and health workers who are fighting the pandemic".
Other members pointed out that the committee had already started deliberations on the vaccine policy, the availability of Covid shots and their production with a full presentation by the Department of Biotechnology at least seven months earlier and this was a bipartisan meeting cutting across party lines.
VK Paul, who heads the Covid task force, did not attend the meeting and his absence was questioned by a member. Jairam Ramesh, however, didn't pursue the subject.
Balram Bhargava, the chief of top medical body Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was present and fielded questions.
Members asked him why the sample size was so small -- only 40,000 -- for genome sequencing to track variants. That was 0.013% though it should be at least five percent, they said.
Dr Bhargava pointed out that the ICMR at present needs monkeys for testing and these were not readily available.
One of the members asked Principal Scientific Adviser K Vijay Raghavan whether he believed the pandemic was the result of a leak from the Wuhan lab, since India had, along with G7 countries, endorsed that Covid origins needed to be investigated.
Some BJP members objected to the pointed question directed at the Prime Minister's top scientific adviser.
The committee later praised the Science and Technology ministry for its role in research and development linked to the vaccine.