After November 8, 2016, July 1, 2017 and March 24, 2020, January 3, 2021 may go down as another ‘special’ day in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure. While the first three would be remembered for sudden announcement of demonetization, shoddy implementation of Goods and Services Tax and abrupt imposition of lockdown, the fourth and the last one may go down in history for a unique war between pharmaceutical firms, which is likely to have a great negative impact on the minds of the common masses in this crucial hour when the need was to remove all the misgivings.
The first three steps were taken to show that the government is decisive and bold. Initially a large section of the public opinion makers hailed the first three government moves. But they turned out to be anything, but successful. Later the government came under attack from many sides as these so-called smart initiatives had detrimental impact on India’s economy.
Similarly, when the Drug Controller General of India on January 3 gave approval to Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Serum Institute’s Covishield the common masses took a sigh of relief, though there were scepticism too. Several opposition leaders as well as independent experts questioned the hastiness shown by the government as vaccination drive is related to the health of the people.
Like in the first three instances this time too, a large number of people were carried away by the government’s propaganda and in the beginning paid little attention to the opposition’s point of view.
However, by January 3 evening itself everything went haywire. The Chief Executive Officer of Serum Institute Adar Poonawalla came out with a statement that except Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford/Astra Zeneca’s vaccine “everything else has proven to be safe just like water”.
As he was directly rejecting Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin the latter was bound to react. Its founder Chairman-cum-Managing Director, Dr Krishna Ella, took strong exceptions to the language used by Poonawalla and alleged that the latter’s remarks were a part of larger design to defame the indigenously researched and produced vaccine.
Poonawalla’s Serum Institute has got the licence from Oxford/AstraZeneca to manufacture Covishield.
While the Serum Institute’s Covishield has the efficacy data of about 70 per cent no such figure is available from Bharat Biotech.
The bigger question now being asked is as to why the government rushed and gave the approval without waiting for the efficacy data of the third trial of Covaxin?
The apologists of the government argue that there was need for hurry because the pandemic was taking a heavy toll of lives. But the truth is just the opposite. Unlike Europe and the United States, where more than 7,000-8,000 people are dying every day, in India corona virus is now taking around 300 lives daily. This is so notwithstanding the fact that India’s population is one and a half times more than that of the combined population of the United States and Europe.
So if the West is in a hurry for vaccines it is understandable, but India could certainly have waited for a month or two before giving nod to them.
When Prime Minister Modi paid a visit to Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute in Pune on November 28 the move was hailed by a section of people. But according to critics this was a totally unwanted visit, which instead of encouraging the researchers and scientists only increased pressure on them to come out with the products at the earliest. Talking of Atmanirbhar Bharat at this point of time was wholly inappropriate. More than nationalism the need of the hour is the safety and health of the people, it is argued.
If the government wanted to take credit and be patted on the back this was certainly not the best way.
The opposition parties are attacking the government on the plea that since it is in neck deep in trouble due to the lingering farmers’ movement it thought that coming out with vaccines for COVID-19 may bail it out.
But the whole move appears to have backfired and now the government would find it extremely difficult to convince the common masses to take the vaccine.
The author is a senior journalist based in Patna