India began its Covid vaccination drive on January 16 (File)
States can buy coronavirus vaccines directly from manufacturers - who can release up to 50 per cent of their supply for this purpose at a "pre-declared price", the centre said Monday evening, as it announced a series of major changes to the national vaccination policy.
The biggest change is that all those above the age of 18 will be eligible to get the shot from May 1. Currently only those above 45, and those categorised as healthcare frontline workers, are eligible.
Specifically, manufacturers must supply half their output to the centre, which will release these doses, based on number of cases and wastage, to states via the Central Drugs Laboratory (CDL).
The rest can be sold to the states directly - or be made available in the open market - at a pre-agreed price that will be decided after talks with all concerned stakeholders.
Based on this price, and doses available after the centre has been supplied, states, private hospitals and industrial establishments can buy Covid vaccines doses straight from the manufacturers.
The decision to open vaccine sales to states has been flagged repeatedly by opposition leaders, including the Congress' Rahul Gandhi, who wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi 10 days ago asking him to open vaccination to "everyone who needs it".
The opening-up of vaccine sales comes as several states complain of a lack of doses.
This morning Punjab issued a second red alert, warning the centre it had only three days' stock. On Friday Andhra Pradesh said it had completely run out. Earlier this month Maharashtra said it had been forced to shut over 100 vaccination centres, including those in Mumbai and Pune.
National capital Delhi, Rajasthan, Telangana, Odisha and Jharkhand are some of the other states to have sent a 'vaccine SoS' to the centre in recent weeks.
Initially the centre dismissed the reports; Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan slammed the "hue and cry (about vaccine distribution) by certain states... to hide their own incompetence" and Home Minister Amit Shah said "adequate number of doses" was being provided to all states.
Vaccine sales to states and in the open market (to increase the pace of the vaccination drive) is only one half of the conundrum facing the centre. The other is the urgent need to scale up production - in effect, have enough vaccine doses to cover a critical portion of India's population.
Earlier this month Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla, whose facility produces around 65 million doses of Covishield per month, told NDTV existing manufacturing capacities were "very stressed".
Mr Poonawalla said achieving the target capacity - between 100 and 110 million doses - would take substantial investment - around Rs 3,000 crore - and time - an estimated three months.
Reports say the centre is working towards helping SII in this regard, but it will still be at least a few weeks before manufacturing can be scaled up enough to allow states to benefit from buying directly from the producers.
Over the past 48 hours though, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held multiple meetings with ministers and government officials to discuss not just the pandemic but the supply of vaccines (and critical medical resources like oxygen cylinders) and the vaccination policy.
This morning India reported over 2.7 lakh new Covid cases in 24 hours - a new daily record. The country has logged over two lakh cases per day for the past five days and over one lakh per day since April 7, as it is battered by a frighteningly deadly wave of infections.