Politics of vaccine

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Politics of vaccine

Tuesday, 05 January 2021 | Pioneer

Politics of vaccine

The Govt needs to be upfront about the inoculation drive but the Opp, too, needs to act with equal responsibility

India’s planned vaccination drive against the Coronavirus has understandably generated a lot of curiosity, controversy, questions and anxieties. And at this stage of the pandemic, where the nation is being challenged by wave attacks of the mutant virus and when our healthcare systems are being worn out to contain the spiral, the deadliest threat comes not so much from the disease itself but from misinformation. It is of utmost importance, therefore, that we follow science and transparency, go for an exact enumeration of facts as they are rather than claiming a human achievement and send out the right kind of public service message. Certainly, we can do away without politicising the vaccine process, be it by the Government, which needs to curb its over-ambitiousness, or the Opposition, which is questioning every move just for the sake of doing so. While clearing two vaccines for emergency use — Serum Institute’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin — the Government is obviously acting on the notion that though their efficacy and immunogenicity are still not fully proven as they are still in the trial stage, they are safe enough to be administered and good enough to trigger fightback responses in a major part of the population, break the chain of transmission and build up herd immunity. Every nation is betting on this and our evaluators are still seeking data for those vaccines even cleared in the West. The drug regulator has built in checks and balances, making their emergency use approval conditional on the developers submitting details of both the progress and side-effects to it every fortnight. Besides, each person receiving the dose will be monitored and their responses updated as if they are in the “clinical trial mode”. As for the use of Covaxin, which is still awaiting data from its ongoing clinical trials, the Government and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) are repeatedly clarifying that it is a back-up vaccine and the first series to be rolled out will be that of the Serum Institute, which has advanced in trials and results. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has himself said while vaccines approved globally based on gene encoding spike proteins have protective efficacy of over 90 per cent, Covaxin — which is based on the whole inactivated virus — has other antigenic epitopes in addition to spike protein. So it’s likely to have similar protective efficacy, even for the new strain that has surfaced in the US. But the fact of the matter is that suppositions are not good enough and the Government should immediately prioritise an information dissemination system comprising experts, and not bureaucrats, to maintain transparency. Suppression of information could be risky given that the vaccine’s effectiveness could vary among different people and gene pools as would its side-effects. The fact that the Government did not take questions while approving the vaccine use, therefore, backfired somewhat and exposed it to the Opposition’s charges of opacity on a sensitive issue, much like in Russia and China. It is good to clarify that the proposed dosage regime is a work in progress and could be amended depending on shifting data interpretation.

There should be a systematic myth-busting and detailed protocols for adverse reactions to eliminate fears and doubts. People must be made fully aware of what could go wrong, too, and how that could be taken care of easily as well. Without this interactivity, there will continue to be a trust deficit. The Government’s challenge is to treat a complex issue with sensitivity, maturity and certain simplicity, all at the same time. Of course, equal responsibility is expected of the Opposition. We certainly could have done without the kind of response that came from Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav, who said he wouldn’t opt for the inoculation simply because he didn’t believe in a “BJP vaccine”. Or the Congress casting doubts on the indigenously-developed Covaxin, running down an effort that is being pioneered by the nation’s best minds. The vaccine has already been used on children above 12 in the previous round and has been declared safe. Its third-level trials are on with the biggest sample size and it could actually turn out to be our aatmanirbhar asset. The questions that the Opposition indeed needs to ask are about how what looks like a Central plan, using a general election-like apparatus, will be implemented neutrally in States, particularly the non-BJP ones. Kerala has already argued that given its highest peak since the outbreak and with a large part of its population suffering co-morbidities, it be given priority for vaccine allocation. How much of the costs will be divided between the Centre and the States? Who will ensure quality, demarcate the population slabs and who will command this new data of public health? In the end, public health issues become political, and this is the toughest challenge we need to overcome.

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