'Economic interests can't override human lives': Delhi HC slams Centre over vaccine wastage, says it's 'bad planning'

FP Staff
·6 min read

The Delhi High Court on Tuesday expressed its displeasure over the wastage of vaccines in the face of a pandemic and directed the Central government to ensure need-based equitable distribution of resources among states. The court also made sharp comments about the delay in banning oxygen supply for industrial use while hospitals were facing a severe shortage for medical purposes.

The observations of the bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli came during the hearing of a disposed of petition related to COVID-19 tests, which was revived on 19 April (Monday). At the outset, the court established that it will monitor the pandemic situation on a day to day basis, after which Additional Solicitor General Chetan Sharma, representing the Centre, said he wished to highlight the situation with respect to three major aspects - hospital beds, oxygen supply, and Remdesivir shortage.

Oxygen supply

Sharma sought to assure the court that there is no gap in oxygen supply to Delhi at present and its use has been banned for industrial purposes except for certain industries.

A Ministry of Health official also told the high court that there has been an inordinate increase of 133 percent in the projected medical oxygen required, as of 20 April, between the initial estimate of 300 metric tonnes and the revised estimate of 700 metric tonnes submitted by Delhi.

The Centre also informed the high court that it has provided Delhi government hospitals with around 1,390 ventilators.

Earlier in the day, the bench had asked the Centre whether oxygen supplied to industries can be diverted for COVID-19 patients. "Industries can wait. Patients cannot. Human lives are at stake," the bench said.

It said it has heard that doctors at Ganga Ram Hospital were forced to reduce oxygen being given to COVID-19 patients as there was a scarcity of oxygen.

The ministry, in an affidavit also said that in order to increase the capacity of medical oxygen in Delhi, eight Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) Oxygen Generation plants are being installed with the support of PM CARES Funds. "These plants would enhance the capacity of medical oxygen by 14.4 metric tonnes," the ministry's affidavit said.

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The court, however, said that the decision to ban the industrial use of oxygen should have come sooner. "Economic interests can't override human lives. Else we are heading for a disaster," the bench said.

Ramping up testing capacity

The court also weighed in on the delay in results of COVID-19 tests which is further delaying treatment for the patients. The bench said that the Centre should act now to remove bottlenecks in ramping up the testing capacity.

Justice Sanghi, citing a personal experience, said:

"Centre has a very important role to play in ramping up testing.. I'm telling you with some insight.. paperwork that ICMR insists upon takes 15 mins each time a report is uploaded. These are bottlenecks that you need to look at. These are mindless exercise. When Aadhar card is there, why do you need to doctor to refill everything once again..one gets infected, every else will too. This is mindless ...once you have his aadhar, what is the point of putting his age, father's name once again,."

The court also criticised the Centre for ignoring delays caused by the customs department in clearing imported equipment for testing facilities.

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The court said that while Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) approval was important for setting up new facilities, the government body cannot take "its own sweet time" in issuing approvals when the nation is dealing with a pandemic.

The court also took a sympathetic view towards the labs and technicians who are overburdened with testing requests and indicated its previous direction to issue a report within 24 hours of sample collection was no longer viable.

The bench said that the 24-hours deadline was given cases were numbering around 8,000 per day; now that the cases are touching 24-25,000 in each day, it was no longer viable to expect the same expediency. It, however, did insist that labs take up the samples on a first come first serve basis and try to stick to a 48-hour turnaround period.

Remdesivir shortage

The court also expressed hope that the Central government was allocating or diverting resources and medicines, like Remdesivir, based on the needs and situation of each state, otherwise "people will have blood on their hands".

ASG Sharma and central government standing counsel Monika Arora told the court that medical opinion was divided on the use of remdesivir.

To which, Senior advocate Rahul Mehra, appearing for the Delhi government, replied that doctors were prescribing remdesivir and people are unable to get it from the market despite having prescriptions.

The court, however, refused to get into the differing medical opinions about the utility of remdesivir in treating covid patients and said that the crux of the matter was that doctors were relying on the drug and patients are facing difficulty in obtaining it.

"Long and short of it is that it (Remdesivir) is in short supply," the bench said and added that giving clearance for setting up units to manufacture would not yield quick results as establishing the facilities for manufacture takes time.

Vaccine wastage

The court expressed its displeasure over the "huge wastage" of vaccines and asked the Centre to vaccinate whomsoever it can to ensure there is no wastage.

The bench said according to news reports there is a daily wastage of six percent of vaccines and till now 44 lakh vaccines out of 10 crore have been wasted, maximum in Tamil Nadu.

"This is a huge wastage. Give it to those who want it. Whomsoever you can vaccinate, please vaccinate. Whether 16 year old or 60 year old, all need vaccination. The pandemic does not discriminate," the court told the Centre.

The court said young people are being affected more this time around, and a lot of young lives have been lost.

It said if at the end of a day, a few shots are available in a vial, then it be given to someone whether they fall in the approved categories for vaccination or not.

"If you've built up the capacity.. people are willing to take it ..let those who want to take it, take it. The pandemic does not discriminate. It will inflict anybody and everybody," the court was quoted as saying by Bar and Bench.

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To this, the centre replied that the decision of a staggered rollout was taken to avoid a "mad rush" but the court dismissed this argument saying that the government should have been able to anticipate the turnout.

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With inputs from PTI

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