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Health Ministry Refuses to Share Info on COVID-19 Vaccines Rollout

Health Ministry Refuses to Share Info on COVID-19 Vaccines Rollout

Union health minister Harsh Vardhan displays a Covishield vaccine vial, January 16, 2021. Photo: PTI Photo/Vijay Verma

New Delhi: Under fire over an alleged shortage of vaccines as the COVID-19 case count rises in India, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare appears to have deliberately withheld information on its vaccine rollout and pricing process without giving any proper reason.

A number of Right to Information applications were filed by Puducherry-based activist Saurav Das, on how the Centre constituted the Expert Committee on Vaccines, its deliberations, the manner in which it decided that vaccines needed to be first given to 30 crore people on a priority basis and how it ensured the security of the Co-Win app ahead of the roll-out.

But to most of these queries, the health ministry and its concerned departments chose not to reply citing “threat to strategic, scientific, economic interests”.

Talking to The Wire, Das said these responses were grossly illegal as no proper reason was given for denying information under the Right to Information Act. He also said that the Central Information Commission has till date not taken suo motu cognisance of such information, which is of vital interest to the citizens of the country, being denied.

Das said that amid the COVID-19 epidemic last year, then Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Bimal Julka had asked the Union health ministry to “compile all the measures taken by various ministries and list them chronologically on its website.”

However, he said, the ministry didn’t follow the instruction and the current CIC Y.K. Sinha, who looks after the health portfolio, is yet to follow up on the matter.

Das also accused the ministry of giving the same standard replies to nearly all of his queries pertaining to COVID-19 vaccines. He had filed the RTI application on January 19, 2021. His query on how the final price of the COVID-19 vaccine was arrived at sought “the certified true copies for the entire file relating to the fixing of this figure of Rs 206” and “true copies of all the minutes of the meetings since the beginning that were held to decide the final price of the vaccine for procurement”.

However, rather than giving out details on how the final price of the vaccine was determined, the ministry in its response on February 26, 2021, said: “The information sought is exempted under Section 8 (1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005 as this may prejudicially affect the strategic, scientific and economic interest of the State. As such, no information can be provided.”

Expert group

Another of Das’s queries, pertaining to the constitution and functioning of the expert group on vaccines, also elicited a similar reply. As Das tweeted:

In his RTI application filed on March 1, 2021, Das had requested details like the “exact dates on which the expert group has met till date,” certified copies of the agenda of these meetings, of the presentations made before the group, minutes of meetings, notification or office order by which the group was formed, name and designation of people in the group, file notes and correspondence related to the formation of the group and of the presentations made before it.”

He had also asked for the details of every meeting in which the matter of the National Health ID was discussed and all the file notes, correspondence, internal communications, minutes and memos related to these.

Also read: ‘Never Seen Anything Like it’: Gagandeep Kang on India’s Vaccine Approvals

However, in its reply on March 9, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare gave a standard answer to all the nine points raised in the application – that “information sought is exempted under Section 8 (1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005 as this may prejudicially affect the strategic, scientific and economic interest of the State”.

“As such no information can be provided.”

Safety and clearance

In another RTI application that he filed with the Central Drug Standards Control Organisation, under the “threat to life and liberty” clause on January 3, 2021, he raised the issues of safety and clearances for vaccines.

In its response on January 21, the CDSCO stated that information on eight of the points was exempted under Section 8(1)(d) and (e) of the RTI Act. It, however, added that “the recommendations of the Subject Expert Committee (SEC) (COVID) were available in CDSCO website.”

Also read: As India’s Vaccine Drive Expands, Here’s What We Know About the Two Available Shots

Das commented on this reply via a tweet:

Priority list

Das also said that the ministry had similarly refused to provide information citing Section 8(1)(a, on how “the exact figure of 30 crore people to be vaccinated was arrived at”. He had asked for copies of relevant evidence, material, advice, recommendations and reports in the matter.

To a question about “the exact details of the age-group, type of people that are included in this 30 crore figure”, the ministry responded thus: “The prioritised population group recommended by the National Expert Group on COVID-19 vaccine administration are:

  1. 1 crore healthcare workers and those who are working in health care set-ups in both government and private sectors.
  2. 2 crore frontline workers (personnel from state and central policy departments, armed forces, home guard and civil defence organisation including disaster management volunteers and municipal workers).
  3. 27 crore of people who are above 60 and those between 45 and 60 with associated comorbidities.”

However, to another question seeking “copy of any contract, MoU, signed between the Government of India or any of its offices/attached offices/departments and any entity – foreign or national – which stipulates the figure of 30 crore people to be vaccinated first”, the ministry only said “the information is not available”.

Reacting to this, Das tweeted:

Co-Win app data

Das, whose RTI applications had revealed shortcomings in data security measures related to the Aarogya Setu app, also tweeted details of how the ministry claimed the same exemption under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act to deny him any information on the security of data pertain to the Co-Win app.

Das had, on January 22, asked for a copy of the entire file related to the app’s creation with details of “origin of proposal, approval details, companies involved, people and government departments involved”. He had also asked for the file notes, comments, communication between people and government officials and departments involved in the development of the app.

He also requested information on the actions that would be taken once user data is uploaded on the server, if the Intelligence Bureau or any other intelligence, security or law enforcement agency would be able to access user data. The ministry refused to reply to any of these questions saying – again – that the information sought would “prejudicially affect the strategic, scientific and economic interests of the state”.

Reacting to this reply, Das said, “The ministry is supposed to justify rejection of info on sound grounds. Simply invoking exemptions without giving reasons for doing so is illegal.”

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