India Not To Vaccinate All For Covid Control: Upsides And Unknowns

With 9.46 million cases and 137,621 deaths, India has currently the world’s second-highest number of coronavirus infections, behind only the United States, reported Reuters on December 01, 2020.

Fathoming seriousness of rapidly unfolding Covid induced all round disruptions across the nation, on October 17, 2020, the Indian Prime Minister issued a clarion call. He called for full preparedness of the country to ensure speedy access to Covid vaccines for every citizen.

However, the above view was subsequently changed. On December 02, 2020, quoting Union Health Ministry of India, it was reported, ‘the Government has never spoken about vaccinating the entire country.’ The Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said, “the Indian government is of the opinion that vaccination against the deadly pandemic may be needed only to the extent of ‘breaking the chain.’ If we’re able to vaccinate a critical mass of people and break virus transmission, then we may not have to vaccinate the entire population.”

Why the PM saidCovid vaccines for every citizen’ at that time?

In my view, what the PM said made perfect sense at that time. This is also vindicated by a fact-based interesting discussion in The Wire on July 16, 2020, carrying a title – ‘How Effective Does a Vaccine Need to Be to Stop the Pandemic? It quoted an in-depth study concluding, “a vaccine with an efficacy as low as 60% could still stop the pandemic and allow society to return to normal. However, most, if not all of the population would have to be vaccinated.”

This research article, titled ‘Vaccine Efficacy Needed for a COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine to Prevent or Stop an Epidemic as the Sole Intervention,’ was published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) on July 15, 2020. The study found that the vaccine has to have an efficacy of at least 70% to prevent an epidemic and of at least 80% to largely extinguish an epidemic without any other measures (e.g., social distancing).

The PM’s observation will make even better sense, while taking into account the draft ‘Regulatory Guidelines for Development of Vaccines with Special Consideration for Covid-19 vaccine in India. This guidance document for vaccine developers was issued by the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), and was reported by the media on September 23, 2020. It also says, among other specifics, a COVID-19 vaccine candidate should show at least 50 per cent efficacy during phase III of clinical trials for it to be widely deployed.”

Why health ministry’s current plan of not vaccinating all, also makes sense:

Indian Health Ministry’s latest assessment that vaccination against the deadly pandemic may be needed only to the extent of ‘breaking the chain,’ also makes sense in the rapidly emerging contemporary scenario.

It makes sense, considering, even the World Health Organization (WHO) experts have, reportedlypointed to a 65%-70% vaccine coverage rate as sufficient to reach population immunity, based on scientific reasons. This raises the subsequent question of who in India will get priority for vaccination.

The priority group for Covid vaccination in India:

As reported on November 26, 2020, according to the Principal Scientific Advisor of India, about 300 million people will be part of the first ‘wave’ to receive Covid vaccines in India. This number includes, health care workers, totaling 30 million, police personnel and those above 50 and those younger with underlying illnesses that make them vulnerable. However, everything in this area doesn’t seem to be as clear or straight forward as is widely expected. India’s Covid vaccination plan still seems to be a work in progress.

India’s Covid vaccine plan is still a work in progress:

This is evident from many reports, such as one of December 01, 2020. This report says, experts still believe that the government should spell out whether the vaccination should be confined to only uninfected individuals or encompass everyone. These reports may vindicate the murmur in the corridors of power that many details of Covid vaccination in India are yet to crystallize.

Let me quote the Indian Prime Minister in this regard, as he is not only the head of the current Government, but is also the national voice on all contemporary issues in the external world.

Interestingly, on November 24, the Prime Minister himself acknowledged: ‘Will go by scientific advice on Covid vaccine, don’t have many answers yet.’ He made it clear that he did not yet have answers to:

  • Vaccine dosage
  • Pricing or sourcing

Although, his Government has been in touch with local and global vaccine developers, nations and multilateral institutions to ensure vaccine procurement, the PM added.

Curiously, unlike what the Principal Scientific Advisor of India, reportedly articulated on November 26, 2020, just a couple of days before that, on November 24, 2020, the PM has put it quite differently.He then said, priority groups for vaccine administration would be fixed based on state inputs and added that additional cold storage must be created by states. These confirm, India’s final plan on Covid vaccination is still a work in progress.

The Covid vaccination plan is still evolving in India:

Interestingly, on December 04, 2020, in an all-party meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, it was further announced - the first set to receive the Covid -19 vaccine will be about one Crore frontline health workers and the next will be two Crore armed forces, police, and municipal personnel. Besides, around 27 Crore senior citizens, too, would be receiving the vaccine. Thus, the Government’s vaccination plan seems to be still evolving. Meanwhile, something sensational happened in the global race for having a Covid vaccine for a country’s population.

Curiously, much before the commencement of Covid vaccine prioritization discussion in India, on September 14, 2020, it was reported that China is also not going for its entire population. They are prioritizing frontline workers and high-risk populations in its fight against the new Coronavirus.

The first emergency-use authorization for a Covid-19 vaccine happened:

On December 02, 2020, both the local and global media, such as The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported: ‘The U.K. became the first Western nation to grant emergency-use authorization for a Covid-19 vaccine, clearing a shot developed by Pfizer Inc. of the U.S. and BioNTech SE of Germany to be distributed in limited numbers within days.’

In the war against Covid pandemic, it also marks a key milestone in efforts to translate a promising new vaccine technology into a widely available shot, the report highlighted. It was developed, tested and authorized and is now poised to be distributed amid a pandemic that has sickened tens of millions of people and killed more than 1.4 million around the world, the news article added.

Interestingly, the U.K could make it happen, even before the United States, where this vaccine is now being reviewed by the USFDA, where a similar authorization could come later this month and a rollout before the end of the year. It’s noteworthy that the USFDA Commissioner has defended the pace of review of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on the grounds that a thorough assessment is needed to reassure a skeptical public.

NIAID director of the US also believes so, and has claimed, “We have the gold standard of a regulatory approach with the FDA.” This brings us to the question – will Pfizer’s Covid vaccine be available in India soon?

Will Pfizer’s Covid vaccine be available in India soon?

Just a day after U.K’s emergency approval of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine to be rolled out to the public early next week, Pfizer, reportedly, said, the Company is in discussions with many governments around the world, and “… will supply this vaccine only through government contracts based on agreements with respective government authorities and following regulatory authorization or approval.”

However, as reported on December 06, 2020, Pfizer has now sought approval from the DCGI for emergency use authorization of its Coronavirus vaccine. In its application dated December 4, Pfizer India has sought approval to “import the vaccine for sale and distribution in the country, besides waiver of clinical trials on Indian population in accordance with the special provisions under the New Drugs and Clinical Trials Rules, 2019.”

It’s worth noting, conducting Phase III clinical trials on Indian volunteers has, so far, been a pre-requisite for the DCGI to give authorization to a particular investigational Covid vaccine. For example, AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is, reportedly being tested in a phase-3 trial on over 1,600 subjects in India by Serum Institute. So is the Sputnik V, developed by Russia, and touted as the world’s “first registered Covid-19 vaccine” after it received Russian regulatory approval in early August 2020.

Further, the head of the Indian National Task Force on COVID-19, had also said the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine in India might take some months. This is, reportedly for two reasons. One, the vaccine has stringent temperature requirements (-75 degree Celsius), which make it unviable for the current cold-chain logistics in India. And the second, could possibly be, its Indian clinical trial requirements, as has been the practice of even Russia approved Sputnik V vaccine.

Thus, it appears, India is now looking at the vaccines being developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca or Bharat Biotech against the pandemic, as these are expected to complete clinical trials and seek a regulatory approval at an early date.

Upsides and unknowns of the current status of Covid vaccines in India:

Along the obvious upsides, such as – not all in the country needs to be vaccinated and, at least, one Covid vaccine is widely expected to come shortly that is being manufactured in India, there are several critical unknown factors, too. For example, apace with several similar articles, the research paper titled, ‘Will covid-19 vaccines save lives? Current trials aren’t designed to tell us,’ published in The BMJ on October 21, 2020, also raised this issue.

It pointed out: “Ideally, you want an antiviral vaccine to do two things . . . first, reduce the likelihood you will get severely ill and go to the hospital, and two, prevent infection and therefore interrupt disease transmission.” Yet the current phase III trials are not actually set up to prove either, it emphasized. None of the trials currently underway are designed to detect a reduction in any serious outcome, such as hospital admissions, use of intensive care, or deaths. Nor are the vaccines being studied to determine whether they can interrupt transmission of the virus.

Conclusion: 

As of December 06, 2020 morning, India recorded a staggering figure of 9,644,529 of new Coronavirus cases with 140,216 deaths. The threat of subsequent waves for further spread of Covid infection now looms large in many states. The Prime Minister of India is also intimately involved in search of a meaningful solution to end the pandemic.

In this scenario, that a Covid vaccine is coming so soon, is a very good news, undoubtedly. There are several obvious upsides of this development, alongside many critical unknown areas, including how long the immunity will last after administration of a Covid vaccine. Incidentally, ‘Moderna vaccine-induced antibodies last for 3 months’ says NIAID study. Even in India a ‘Minister tested positive after the first dose of vaccine.

I am sure, the right answers will surface as the research will progress. Meanwhile, there doesn’t seem to be any other alternative sans vaccines, to kick start the globalized world – for a holistic and inclusive long-term progress, economic prosperity and, if not survival with dignity, for all.

By: Tapan J. Ray     

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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