'COVID vaccination policy prima facie detrimental to right to health': SC pulls up Centre over differential pricing

The Supreme Court on Sunday directed the Centre to revisit its vaccination procurement policy, stating that it would prima facie be “a detriment to the right to public health which is an integral element of Article 21 of the Constitution”.

The Supreme Court bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat observed that “there are several aspects of the vaccine pricing policy adopted by the central government which require that policy be revisited. All vaccines, whether in the quantity of 50 percent purchased by the Central Government or the remaining 50 percent, are to be used for vaccinating citizens”.

“Prima facie, the rational method of proceeding in a manner consistent with the right to life (which includes the right to health) under Article 21 would be for the Central Government to procure all vaccines and to negotiate the price with vaccine manufacturers. Once quantities are allocated by it to each State Government, the latter would lift the allocated quantities and carry out the distribution,” the Bench said.

The court also questioned to how people without access to digital means or applications will access the vaccines. It also asked the Centre to vaccinate crematorium workers, who were not considered as frontline healthcare workers.

The bench also emphasised that Bahujans or people who belong to other under privileged and marginalised groups should have equal access to vaccines. The court asserted that vaccinations being provided to citizens constitute a valuable public good and thus, discrimination cannot be made between different classes of citizens who are similarly circumstanced.

The Centre and states were asked to provide a breakup of the current and projected availability of vaccine stocks for the next six months and a timeline for achieving immunisation of those aged between 18-44 years.

The Bench sought details regarding the aid provided to the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, and sought to know whether the Centre has made any grants or sanctions to the vaccine manufacturers in the past, like the current infusion of Rs 1,500 crore.

The apex court urged the Centre and states to impose a lockdown as India witnesses a debilitating COVID-19 wave. It said that in the event of a lockdown, prior arrangements should be made to address the needs of marginalised communities, which bear an immense socio-economic impact during such periods.

Observing that hospital beds and essential drugs should not be denied in the absence of local identity proof, the Bench asked the Centre to formulate a national policy on admissions to hospitals within two weeks.

The Supreme Court also directed the Centre to prepare a buffer stock of oxygen for emergency purposes in collaboration with states and decentralise the location of the stocks so that it is immediately available if the normal supply chain is disrupted.

"The emergency stocks shall be created within the next four days. The replenishment of the emergency stocks will also be monitored on a real-time basis through the virtual control room in active consultation with each state/UT. This is in addition to the day to day allocations," it added.

Noting that the situation on the ground in Delhi is heart-rending, the top court also directed the Centre to ensure that the deficit in the supply of oxygen to the national capital is rectified before 3 May midnight. It said the lives of citizens cannot be put in jeopardy in the battle of shifting the responsibility of supply of oxygen.

The top court also sought to know whether the Centre intended to consider granting compulsory licence to enable more manufacturers to make the vaccines and essential drugs like Remdesivir to ensure adequate supplies.

The Bench also directed the Centre and the state governments to notify that any clampdown on information on social media or harassment caused to individuals seeking help on any platform will attract coercive action.

The matter is listed for the next hearing on 10 May. The directions were passed in a suo motu case for ensuring essential supplies and services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bench has taken up issues such as the projected demand for oxygen in the country at present and in the near future, how the government intends to allocate it to "critically affected" states and its monitoring mechanism to ensure supply.