Some countries have opened doors for the private sector to get in on the vaccine drive.
Thailand has joined a number of countries planning to involve the private sector in the purchase and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines despite concerns that such a move will commercialise global inoculation efforts.
The Southeast Asian country of 70 million said two private parties have approached the government seeking import permits — something which will help supplement the official vaccination effort.
Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of the US-based pharma giant Johnson & Johnson, and Principal Capital, which runs a chain of private hospitals and hotels, are in the race to import the vaccines into Thailand, Nikkei Asia reported on Tuesday.
A senior official at Bangkok’s drug regulator indicated that other private companies might also be allowed to sell the jabs to those who can afford them as authorities look to reach the required immunity levels needed to reopen the economy.
The process to grant import licenses can take weeks.
Other countries in the region have considered backing the state-run vaccination campaign with contribution from the private sector.
But the policy faces criticism as it could potentially allow wealthy individuals and corporate clients to jump the queue.
“If the vaccines are sold directly to hospitals or clinics separately from government service then it guarantees in essence that those with money would be the first in line,” said Gerald Posner, author of Pharma: Greed, Lies and the Poisoning of America.
Is it even on the market?
Six companies dominate the vaccine landscape. Pfizer-BioNtech, Moderna and AstraZeneca are meeting most of the demand arising from wealthy nations while China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm and Russia’s Gamaleya institute, which is making the Sputnik V vaccine, are vying to fill the gap in the developing world.
So far 186 million people around the globe have received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Up until now all the vaccine manufacturers have dealt directly with governments, who are distributing it free of charge.
This hasn’t stopped for-profit companies from trying to get into the game in developing countries where vaccine rollout has been slow.
An exclusive travel club in the UK is even offering a $55,000 a trip package to wealthy individuals who want to get vaccinated and spend a month of holidays in Dubai, UAE.
Last month Chughtai Lab, which runs a chain of pathology centers in Pakistan, said it was in the process of importing Sputnik V vaccine from Russia.
The news led to an uproar as there were concerns that the jabs will be sold at a price that’s many times greater than its cost.
Pakistan’s anti corruption watchdog even began investigating the matter after reports suggested that Chughtai Lab was planning to sell one dose at $125 whereas Sputnik V’s official price tag is only $10 a dose.
In spite of the concerns, private clinics will start receiving Sputnik V delivery soon, an official involved in the deal told TRT World.
“We are completing the necessary paperwork and registration process as per the government guidelines that were released recently,” he said.
The many unknowns
Privately-run Ali Gohar Pharmaceuticals, a Karachi-based company, which says it’s the exclusive distributor of Sputnik V in the country, was not immediately available for comment.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is responsible for international distribution of Sputnik V, did not respond to TRT World’s email seeking confirmation if it was signing supply agreements with private parties.
Janssen, which is in the process of getting an import license from Thai authorities, also did not reply to emailed questions.
While a few countries have given a green light to for-profit organisations, they have put in place in different arrangements to purchase and distribute the vaccines.
In Indonesia, which in early March approved a controversial scheme to let some 7,000 private companies buy vaccines to inoculate employees and their families, says all the jabs will be imported by state-run vaccine maker Bio Farma.
Jakarta insists that private companies will give the vaccines to their employees free of cost.
Israel, United Arab Emirates, UK, US and Chile are leading the vaccination race, according to Our World in Data, which keeps track of the vaccination drive.
But it’s not just the developing countries such as Indonesia and Thailand which have faced delays. Governments in the EU are in a fix over the slow vaccine rollout as a result of bureaucratic hurdles and production delays at pharmaceutical companies.
“The difficulty is that all the companies have talked about equitable distribution of vaccines and getting them beyond just the wealthy countries which are willing to pay for them,” said Posner.
“But they haven't done a very good job at that.”