The UK’s decision to quarantine even vaccinated Indians has stirred a hornet’s nest, and doubts
There is consternation in India after the UK said that travelling Indians, even if fully vaccinated with Covishield, will have to undergo quarantine for 10 days. The rule is part of new guidelines as travel restrictions are being eased from October 4. The Indian Opposition leaders termed it bizarre and racist. The Indian Government asked the UK to resolve the issue at the earliest. In the melee that followed, there was no immediate response from the one agency that should have been the first to question it — the Indian Council of Medical Research or the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19. The first thing the country needed to know was whether the UK guideline cast any doubts about the efficacy of Covishield. This is because the maximum vaccine doses being given in India are of Covishield. Over 230 million doses have been administered so far. No such clarification was forthcoming. Leading microbiologist and virologist Gagandeep Kang told this paper that there is nothing wrong with Covishield. “It is fine,” she asserted. The scientist’s assurance, however, does not reduce the worries of hundreds of Indian students planning to commence studies in the UK or waiting for the travel restrictions to end to return to their places of study. Why is the UK making an exception to Covishield? Is it not a fact that Covishield is the biologically identical version of Vaxzevria, the European brand name for the AstraZeneca vaccine? The only difference between the two is that Covishield is manufactured in India by the Serum Institute.
It is claimed that the entire controversy stems from some technical issues in the CoWin certification process. Earlier, the UK had a system that slotted countries into three lists for purposes of allowing entry. From October 4, there will be only one list; travellers from a country omitted from it will have to be quarantined for 10 days even when fully vaccinated if that vaccine is not in that country’s approved vaccines list. If so, the question arises why the Serum Institute of India did not ensure that Covishield was in that list? If the UK follows the approval procedure of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the body for scientific evaluation, supervision and safety monitoring of medicines in the European Union — even though it is out of the EU — the Indian manufacturer should have applied for approval. The EMA approved only four COVID-19 vaccines so far: Comirnaty, Moderna, Vaxzevria and Jansen. The Serum Institute’s Adar Poonawalla did say in July that he had taken up the issue of exclusion of Covishield from the approved vaccines list at the highest level. The British Government also said in the same month that the UK health regulator had approved the Serum Institute’s vaccine, but that EMA was yet to give its nod. The EMA website says it is currently reviewing the following vaccines: NVX-CoV2373, CVnCoV, Sputnik V, Vero Cell and Vidprevtyn. Where is Covishield?