As the Indian government advances its COVID-19 vaccination program, some companies are making plans to vaccinate their employees as soon as possible.
“We are in talks with vaccine developers and manufacturers to procure vaccines in bulk,” said Udbhav Ganjoo, head of HR-global operations for India and emerging Asia at Viatris, a health care firm that has a global center in Hyderabad. “Safety and wellness is the key right now, above all things.”
The Indian government has approved two vaccines for emergency use and started vaccinating its population in mid-January. So far, approximately 9 million doses have been administered in India, mainly to health care and frontline workers. Next in line to be vaccinated are elderly people and those with comorbidities.
But given its population of 1.3 billion people, India has a huge task ahead.
To complement the government’s efforts, industry groups have requested that private companies be allowed to vaccinate their workforce.
India has an advantage over some other countries as it is the largest producer of vaccines in the world. The Serum Institute of India, a drug manufacturer in Pune, has already made 100 million doses of Covishield, AstraZeneca/Oxford University’s COVID-19 vaccine. Covaxin, a vaccine that has government approval, is also being manufactured at a rapid pace.
Companies are now awaiting government rules on when these vaccines can be sold to them or to the public.
Among those eager to inoculate their staff are JSW Group, a conglomerate with businesses in steel and infrastructure; Bengaluru-based biopharmaceutical firm Biocon; mining company Vedanta; hotel chain Lemon Tree Hotels; and the Indian unit of tire and rubber company Bridgestone.
“We are waiting and watching as of now,” said Apurv Choubey, CHRO at Bridgestone India in Pune.
The company would like to vaccinate all of its 3,300 employees in India, plus their family members and the company’s indirect employees, Choubey said. “We may not make it mandatory for everyone.”
A First for Indian Companies
Typically, companies in India don’t hold vaccination drives for adults, so this would be a first for many of them. Companies would need to set up teams to not only organize the administration of the two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, but also to keep track of any side effects that the employees may develop.
“That monitoring is very important,” Ganjoo said.
His company plans to inoculate all 15,000 employees in India in the first phase, and in the second phase vaccinate employees’ family members.
Viatris’ factories have been working at full strength since last year, but only half of the corporate staff has been coming to the office, Ganjoo said. Working from home for nearly a year has taken a toll on employees, he said, especially those living in small homes. “People want to come to the office,” he said.
Ganjoo expects that the vaccine could be available for purchase by July. By then, new vaccines could also have come to the market.
Meanwhile, companies are doing preparatory work.
At Viatris, efforts are focused on educating employees in order to foster a pro-vaccine sentiment and allay any fears they may have. “As we draw closer [to vaccination], we will intensify our awareness programs,” Ganjoo said.
At Lemon Tree Hotels, a pan-Indian chain, HR is compiling all employee details, including everyone’s Aadhar unique identification details, their age and any pre-existing conditions they have.
This will come in handy in case the government requires that companies inoculate certain priority groups within the workforce before others, said Rajesh Kumar, Lemon Tree’s vice president of HR in Delhi. The company hopes to cover all its direct and indirect employees and at least two family members of each employee, which would add up to around 10,000 individuals, he said.
One of the vaccine manufacturers is already in touch with the company’s senior management about selling the vaccine when the government allows it.
“The company will bear the cost,” Kumar said.
[see SHRM members-only COVID-19 vaccination resources]
The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), a national industry association, has suggested to the government that companies be allowed to use funds from their mandatory corporate social responsibility (CSR) corpus to inoculate their workforces. Indian law mandates that all companies above a certain net worth set aside 2 percent of their average net profit of three years for the CSR corpus.
The government is considering its proposals, according to a CII spokeswoman.
Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.