This Article is From May 25, 2021

"Will Only Work With Centre," Says Pfizer As States' Vaccine Bids Falter

American companies Pfizer and Moderna have turned down requests to supply Delhi and Punjab with their vaccines - both citing official policy.

'Will Only Work With Centre,' Says Pfizer As States' Vaccine Bids Falter

Pfizer said discussions with the centre - to roll out its vaccine in India - were "ongoing" (File)

New Delhi:

States scrambling to buy Covid vaccines directly from foreign manufacturers - to boost what they say is insufficient supply from the centre - seem to be running into a roadblock in some cases, with at least two pharmaceutical giants refusing to sell to them.

American companies Pfizer and Moderna have turned down requests to supply Delhi and Punjab with their vaccines. Both cited official policy and said they would only deal with the centre.

"Pfizer will supply COVID-19 vaccines only to central governments for deployment in national immunisation programmes. Allocation of doses and implementation plan within a country is a decision for local governments based on relevant health authority guidelines," the company said.

The company also said discussions with the centre - to roll out its vaccine in India - were "ongoing". Emergency use approval for the drug has been held up, news agency Reuters reported last week, over Pfizer's demands for legal indemnity from claims linked to its product.

Moderna is understood to have made similar demands for legal protection. The company is also believed to have told states that even if it could deal with them, it does not have spare stocks.

Vaccine supplies have become a sore subject in India, with several states insisting they do not have enough doses to vaccinate both age groups - 18-44 and 45+ - but the centre insisting they do.

The result has been some states shutting down vaccination centres or suspending inoculation for the 18-44 demographic. Delhi did just that on Monday - closing 400 sites to that group.

Earlier in the year, states flagging this issue petitioned the centre to be allowed to buy directly from manufacturers. From May 1 they were allowed to do so - as part of a new "liberalised" policy.

The centre - heavily criticised over vaccinations - said it would supply 50 per cent of doses.

Supply of the rest, it effectively said, would be the problem of individual states, triggering a potential bidding war and stand-off over vaccines, much like with oxygen over the past weeks.

Since then, seven states and UTs - Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Delhi - have floated global tenders. The Mumbai civic body also took the import route and has had some success, having received three bids for the supply of Russia's Sputnik V.

Some others - particularly those ruled by the BJP or its allies - have decided against importing vaccines. Assam, where the party is in power, described the tenders as "just publicity".

Around 15.5 crore doses have been sought from abroad. UP leads the queue with four crore doses, Tamil Nadu wants 3.5, Kerala three, Karnataka two, and Punjab, Haryana and Delhi one each.

While states have not yet closed the tender process (UP has, in fact, extended it), Pfizer and Moderna's replies suggest buying from manufacturers will be difficult, particularly since many have already committed to nations that, some argue, had the foresight to order in advance and in bulk.

The companies approached include Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and the makers of Sputnik.

Of these only Sputnik is currently approved for use in India, meaning that even if a deal were to be struck, it will still require the national drug regulator to sign off.

Kerala has already made that point, insisting that any supplier needs to have been DCGI (Drug Controller General India) approval before being considered for supply of vaccines to the state.

Another issue - particularly for Pfizer - is that of legal indemnity, which can only be granted by the centre, meaning, as with regulatory approvals, the centre could torpedo any deal.

The centre, therefore, has to clear Pfizer, Moderna and other vaccines before states can buy them, assuming that they will be able to convince the companies to deal directly with them.

India currently has three vaccines - Covishield (developed by AstraZeneca-Oxford University), Covaxin (developed by Bharat Biotech) and Sputnik V.

All three have waived indemnity and are already supplying states directly.

Meanwhile, questions were raised this morning after the centre told the Kerala High Court that 8.5 crore doses of Covishield and Covaxin were being produced per month in India. The daily vaccination rate, however, is between 12 and 13 lakhs - less than 60 per cent of the number of vaccine doses produced in the country every 24 hours.