Home / India / Covid jab underbelly: Govt wings yet to get funds pledged by PMO

RTI query exposes the truth

Covid jab underbelly: Govt wings yet to get funds pledged by PMO

The health ministry, ICMR and DBT said they have not received any share of the Rs 100 crore pledged from the PM CARES Fund
Representational image.
Representational image.
File photo.

GS Mudur   |   New Delhi   |   Published 20.01.22, 02:24 AM

The department of biotechnology in the Union science ministry has spent only 13 per cent of the Rs 900 crore earmarked for Covid-19 vaccine development 14 months ago and multiple government departments have not received money for jabs pledged by the Prime Minister’s Office 20 months ago.

The health ministry, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the department of biotechnology (DBT), responding to a transparency activist’s queries, have said they have not received any share of the Rs 100 crore pledged from the PM CARES Fund.


The PMO had on May 13, 2020, said the PM CARES Fund Trust would allocate Rs 2,000 crore for ventilators, Rs 1,000 crore to support migrant labourers and Rs 100 crore to help “catalyse” vaccine development”.

The PMO said the Rs 100 crore would be supervised by the office of the principal scientific adviser to the government.

The Centre on November 29, 2020, announced a plan to accelerate the development of candidate vaccines against Covid-19 through a Rs 900 crore grant routed through the DBT to support pre-clinical and clinical research.

But the DBT has thus far given only Rs 115.9 crore, or less than 13 per cent of that amount, to five vaccine makers and an academic institution, the department said in its responses to Commodore Lokesh Batra, the RTI activist who had sought details on vaccine funds spending.

“One mystery is the Rs 100 crore we were told would be given from the PM CARES Fund,” said Batra, who had initially sent a query in July 2021 to the health ministry under the RTI Act asking about funds received for vaccines from PM CARES.

“The RTI was tossed around,” Batra told The Telegraph. It was forwarded to the PMO, ICMR, DBT, Niti Aayog, which is guiding Covid-19 vaccine policies, and to the drug regulatory authority.

The PMO responded, saying the PM CARES Fund was “not a public authority under the ambit of section 2(h) of the RTI Act of 2005”, implying it did not need to respond to queries under the RTI Act.

The volume and timeline of the disbursements suggest that the Centre had not only delayed investing on vaccine development at a time governments in other countries had supported “at-risk” development but failed to spend even earmarked and pledged funds.

Sections of health experts and industry executives have blamed the lack of central funds for vaccine development and “at-risk” production during the second half of 2020 for the initial slow roll-out of India’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

At-risk production is large-scale manufacture before a candidate vaccine has proven itself through trials and received regulatory approval.

Although the vaccination campaign picked up pace during the second half of 2021, it has so far fully inoculated only 70 per cent of the estimated 944 million adults in the country.

The PM CARES Fund, set up in March 2020 to raise money through domestic and foreign donations for use during distress or emergency circumstances such as the one posed by Covid-19, is described as a “public charitable trust”. The Fund’s website says it had an income of Rs 3,076 crore during 2019-20.

A top government official who requested not to be named said the PM CARES Fund can “fund anyone”, and the amount would not need to be routed through the health ministry, the ICMR, or the DBT. “It could have gone directly to industry,” the official said.

After multiple appeals and reminders, Batra received responses. The ICMR said it had not received any funds for Covid-19 vaccine development from the PM CARES Fund but had itself invested close to Rs 55 crore to support the development of Covaxin, Covishield and a third vaccine. The health ministry, too, said it had received no money for vaccine development from the PM CARES Fund.

Batra appealed again to the DBT earlier this month, seeking spending details.

Responses from the DBT and its Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) listed disbursements to five vaccine makers (Rs 22.5 crore to Biological E, Rs 22.5 crore to Gennova Biopharmaceuticals, Rs 23.7 crore to Bharat Biotech, Rs 40 crore to Cadila and Rs 6.4 crore to Genique Lifesciences) and Rs 79 lakh to an academic research consortium.

“In case of expenditure done through PM CARES Fund: The information does not exist with BIRAC,” the council replied.

A senior DBT official, asked by this newspaper why only 13 per cent of the Rs 900 crore had been spent so far and whether this was a reflection on the capacity of industry or academic institutions to absorb the earmarked funds, said “funds are released as per requirements after due diligence”.

“It is not just money. The DBT has also helped vaccine development processes through activities such as bioassay labs, clinical trial sites and regulatory data,” the official said.

Copyright © 2020 The Telegraph. All rights reserved.