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MUMBAI : Private hospitals in India are left with excess shots of covid-19 vaccines because of high prices, especially in the face of the free government vaccination drive. Hospitals are now hoping for a policy change that would either let them give back the vaccines to manufacturers or allow them to give a third dose to their healthcare staff.

“The uptake in private hospitals has fallen drastically in the last few months and this has led to several hospitals holding excess stock that has an expiry date of six months from now," Dr Harsh Mahajan, president of the Healthcare Federation of India, a lobby group of private hospitals in India, told Mint. “The government’s free vaccination drive is working really well. This has made the vaccination drive in private hospitals redundant," Mahajan contended.

The Indian government decided to cap the price of vaccines in private hospitals to 780 for Covisheild and 1,410 for Covaxin, essentially asking hospitals to take a service charge of 150. Vaccine companies were told to allocate 5% of their doses to private hospitals, from the earlier formula of 25%. Despite the reduction of doses that was sent to private hospitals, there is an excess of doses.

“We are looking to negotiate with companies to take back the excess doses so that at least it can be put to use in places where there is a shortage," said an official from a private hospital who did not wish to be named.

India in the last eight months has administered 950 million doses of covid-19 vaccine, one of the largest in absolute terms in the world. The number of people who have received a single dose is 687 million. There are a total of 92,314 vaccination sites across the country, including 89,699 government-run centres and 2,615 in the private sector.

Among large Indian states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have the least number of private clinics running vaccination drives. There are 90 private clinics against 14,000 governments centres in Uttar Pradesh and 10 private clinics, compared to 11,107 government centres for Bihar, according to data from CoWin.

Mumbai-based Surya Hospital, which used to administer 500 doses everyday a couple of months ago, has seen this come down to 100 vaccines per day. The hospital has a stock of 15,000 doses with an expiry date of March.

“We are hoping that the government comes up with a policy change for giving the third dose to healthcare workers so that we can finish our stock early," said Dr Hiren Ambegaokar, chief executive officer of Surya Hospitals.

The other issue that is holding back hospitals from distributing vaccines to other hospitals with shortages is the stringent licensing system, which restricts the movement of vaccines from one city to another. One of the corporate houses wanted to run a free vaccination drive in Navi Mumbai but the hospital could not share its vaccines, despite having excess doses, Ambegaokar said.

As India inches towards a billion vaccination doses and with the easing of supply from companies such as Serum Institute of India, the country is expected to open vaccine exports by the end of this year.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, several low- and middle-income countries were looking to India to address the issue of vaccine equity as the country had one of the biggest vaccine manufacturing capacities in the world. However, India had to halt vaccine exports to focus on domestic vaccination within months of starting exports.

As countries race to vaccinate their populations, large parts of Asia and Africa have still not managed to vaccinate even 1% of their population.

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