As India’s Covid-19 vaccination drive falters, the country’s Supreme Court has demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government explain how it plans to meet its target of inoculating about 900 million adults by the end of the year.
As India struggles with a second wave of the virus that is killing some 3,000 people a day, according to official statistics, Mr. Modi’s administration is already woefully behind in its goal of administering 400 million to 500 million shots by July.
So far, India has administered about 220 million doses, and just 45 million people — about 4 percent of the population — are fully vaccinated with two doses. Vaccinating all adults would require at least another 1.5 billion doses.
The Supreme Court stepped in this week, signing an order on Monday that demanded that the government explain how it would obtain vaccines given stretched global supplies; what purchase orders it has placed; and how officials planned to resolve a messy dispute between states and the central government over vaccine procurement. The fight ensued after Mr. Modi declared in mid-April that states would need to purchase most doses on their own, which the government said would help speed up vaccination efforts but instead sowed confusion.
States have been forced to compete for limited supplies made by two main domestic vaccine manufacturers, the Serum Institute of India, which produces the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and Bharat Biotech, which makes a vaccine called Covaxin. Officials in several states have complained that they have been unable to acquire doses directly from suppliers, which insist on dealing with the central government.
The court criticized Mr. Modi’s policy, arguing that the central government would have enjoyed greater bargaining power as a single, wholesale buyer. It also slammed the government for allowing private health facilities to charge people under 45 for vaccinations, calling the policy “arbitrary and irrational.”
To step up its campaign, Mr. Modi’s government is banking on significant expansions of production by the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech. While Bharat Biotech’s capacity started out relatively modest, the Serum Institute — a giant in vaccine manufacturing — has fallen short of its ambitions to produce more and faster. Serum’s failures have reverberated beyond India; the company has halted supplies to Covax, a global vaccine facility, derailing vaccination efforts in many poorer countries.
India has been racing to find vaccines from other sources. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has begun to be used in some parts of the country, with one supplier expecting at least 36 million doses in the next couple of months. This week, the Indian government signed a deal with a domestic company called Biological E. Limited for 300 million doses of its vaccine, which is undergoing clinical trials and has yet to receive regulatory approval.
India’s daily infections have fallen by more than half from a month ago, when it was recording more than 400,000 cases a day. But experts warn that the official statistics are an undercount, and that as the virus spreads into rural areas with limited health infrastructure, the true extent of its toll is unclear.