A Right to Information (RTI) Act request has helped to discover that even as the COVID-19 pandemic had the world’s second-worst impact on India, and its vaccine supply has seen many ups and downs, the PM CARES Fund, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi established to deal with any kind of emergency or distress situation, failed to allocate the Rs 100 crore promised for vaccine development.
The Modi government will spend Rs 3,100 crore to help India fight COVID-19, according to a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) dated May 13, 2020. “A vaccine against COVID-19 is the most pressing need, and Indian academia, start-ups, and industry have come together in cutting-edge vaccine design and development. To support the COVID-19 vaccine designers and developers, an amount of Rs. 100 crore will be given from PM CARES Fund as a helping hand to catalyse vaccine development, which will be utilized under the supervision of Principal Scientific Advisor,” according to the announcement.
On July 16, 2021, Batra filed an RTI request with the health ministry’s Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), requesting details of expenses paid under the PM CARES Fund. He specifically requested the total amount of the PM CARES Fund received by the Government of India for vaccine development linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, financial year by year. He was also looking for the identities of government agencies, corporations, non-profit organizations, and other entities involved in the vaccine development process.
“As far as information from [Health and Public Education] Division is concerned, no funds have been received from PM CARES Fund for vaccine development,” the Union health ministry confirmed in answer to activist Commodore Lokesh Batra’s (retd.) plea.
Batra received the response roughly four months after submitting his application, in July 2021, and following repeated reminders to various authorities.
On the very same day, The COVID-19 Vaccine Administration Cell’s Office of the Chief Public Information Officer stated that “no funds have been received from PM Care Fund to this office for ‘vaccine development.” The application would also be forwarded to the PMO, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and the Department of Biotechnology, according to the statement.
The ICMR “disposed of” Batra’s query on August 9, according to the first appellate authority, and “ICMR has not received any funding for COVID-19 vaccine development through the PM-CARES Fund.” On September 10, the PMO followed likewise.
Batra’s request was “transferred to another public authority” on August 9, according to the Department of Biotechnology’s status.
Batra filed the first appeal on September 8, 2021, in response to the PMO’s vague response. “So far as this office is concerned, it is claimed that PM CARES Fund is not a public authority under the purview of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005,” the office’s CPIO said two days later.
The status on the PMO appellate authority portal was “appeal disposed of” on October 1, 2021. On the same day, Batra received a letter from the PMO’s CPIO, indicating that “the PM CARES Fund is not a public authority under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005,” and that “no further information could be shared with you.”
Batra was also notified that his case had been forwarded to the NITI Aayog and the Central Drug Standard Control Organization (CDSCO).
The CDSCO website stated on September 14 that it had responded to Batra’s application as follows:
“CDSCO is a regulatory organization that oversees the quality, safety, and efficacy of medications, including vaccines, in accordance with the New Drugs and Clinical Trials Rules, 2019 under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, and has no role in vaccine development funding or budget allocation.”
Before receiving the information, Batra claimed he had issued seven reminders to the first appellate authority and an “urgent” email to the health ministry’s nodal CPIO to intervene.