Bharat Biotech's Covaxin is now the third costliest vaccine in the world. After the central government capped the prices of COVID-19 vaccines, a Covishield dosage cannot exceed ₹780 per dose, Russia's Sputnik V cannot exceed ₹1,145 per dose, and Covaxin cannot exceed ₹1,410 per shot in India. The GST, or Goods and Services Tax, is included in this amount.
Meanwhile, China's Sinopharm is priced at ₹2080 and Pfizer abroad — roughly $19 (around ₹1423).
"Covaxin's technology is very different from Covishield and Sputnik. For Covaxin, an inactivated whole virus is used, so hundreds of litres of expensive serum have to be imported, and the virus is grown in this serum under BSL labs, with utmost precautions, and then inactivated," said Rakesh Mishra, the Advisor, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, reported NDTV.
He further added that the difference in pricing of the vaccines in the country— with Covaxin costing almost double of Covishield and more than Sputnik may have commercial reasons.
"Technology-wise, mRNA vaccines are easiest, cheapest to make, and don't need an elaborate facility,'' Mishra added.
He explained that Moderna and Pfizer were mRNA vaccines. These do not involve using a live virus that causes COVID-19 but rather directs the body cells to create a harmless piece of spike protein found on the surface of the COVID virus that triggers an immune response.
Additionally, if there emerges a variant against which the existing vaccines fail to offer protection, mRNA technology enables a rapid rewrite to target the new variant.
On the other hand, Covaxin's technology is based on the inactivated viruses resulting in repurposing the vaccine for every new variety, which is a lengthy and time-consuming procedure.
COVID Vaccines Top The List
Experts claim the cost of vaccinations, currently in use throughout the world, is significantly less than the cost of COVID vaccinations, which were produced just a year ago.
For example, Serum Institute, Biological E, and Indian Immunologicals will supply the Pentavalent vaccines (a combination vaccine that protects against five killer diseases- diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, hepatitis B, and Hib) at a cost of ₹17.37 per dosage for a global programme.
The price of the live measles vaccine provided by the Serum Institute to UNICEF is ₹30 per dose.
The rabies vaccine, which is similar to Covaxin in that it employs an inactivated virus, costs ₹200 per dosage.
As a result, the inactivated COVID vaccine's price of ₹1200 (excluding GST) is quite expensive.
Why Are The COVID Vaccines Expensive?
Raw materials, packaging, overheads such as factory maintenance, fees for obtaining licences, and the cost of product research and clinical trials are all factors that add up to the price of a vaccine.
According to industry sources, the prices that are fixed for the vaccines might be up to three times the cost incurred. Another 30 per cent comprise marketing aspect, which includes training health professionals on how to use the vaccine. Then there are taxes and the portion paid to distributors, stockists, and retail pharmacists in the supply chain.
Despite this, analysts have estimated that a pure vaccine manufacturer in India is capable to make a profit of ₹3-4 per dosage. Those that work on product research and manufacturing make a profit off of ₹ 10 a dose.
On August 4, 2020, Dr Krishna Ella, CMD of Bharat Biotech, had made a very bold statement on vaccine pricing. Dr Ella was speaking at a conference on COVID-19 when he picked up a water bottle in front of him and confidently said "This water bottle costs five times more than our vaccine".