Impact of Covid Vaccines’ Possible IP Waiver In India

Just when Covid 2.0 rages in India with almost 4,000 people died in just 24 hours, scientists warn that Covid 3.0, and further waves are now ‘inevitable, reported Reuters on May 06, 2021. With hospitals running short of beds and oxygen during the onslaught of Covid 2.0, the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted, ‘India accounted for nearly half the coronavirus cases reported worldwide last week, and a quarter of the deaths.’

The report revealed some more heartrending details: ‘Many people have died in ambulances and car parks waiting for a bed or oxygen, while morgues and crematoriums struggle to deal with a seemingly unstoppable flow of bodies.’

No visible overall improvements with ‘here and now decisions’ or maybe the lack of it, of the National Covid Management Team, is perceptible, just yet. It’s also a matter of further concern that unlike what happened during Covid 1.0, the second wave of the virus, reportedly, ‘started hitting even young adults hard – leaving countless children to fend for themselves.’

Ironically, alongside a rapid surge in infections, India witnesses a sharp decline in Covid vaccination numbers though more people are eligible. The key reasons being supply chain related problems, despite India being one of the largest vaccine producers, globally. In my last article  published in this blog, I broached on finding a possible exit to this covid 2.0 maze in India. However, this article will explore some unprecedented developments of the last week in this area. To give a perspective, let me start by exploring whether the people responsible for Covid Governance in India, grossly misjudged the situation, claiming the ‘endgame’ of Covid-19, too soon.

‘India announced its triumph over Covid-19 early’:

A third Covid-19 wave is inevitable, but the timing could not be predicted, said India’s principal scientific advisor on May 05, 2021. Intriguingly, less than two months back, the national Government announced its triumph over Covid-19. On March 08, 2021, as Covid vaccination process for senior citizens and people above 45 years with comorbidities had just commenced, the Union Health Minister claimed, ‘India is in the endgame of the novel coronavirus pandemic.’ Just about a couple of months later, it sounded akin to a note of hubris for many, which prevailed, by and large, across the nation.

Acknowledging the same, on May 04, 2021, even Uday Kotak, MD&CEO Kotak Mahindra Bank and President CII commented, ‘India announced triumph over Covid-19 early’. He further urged: “We have to do whatever it takes to save lives first, even as we battle for livelihoods. And if our healthcare capacity is currently going through its challenges, we must be ready to curtail non-essential economic activities.” The latest editorial from ‘The Lancet’ also highlighted the same.

India’s Covid 2.0 – “A self-inflicted national catastrophe” – The Lancet 

Yes. The editorial of the latest – May 08, 2021 issue of The Lancet, also reiterated so. It emphasized, ignoring warnings about the risks of super spreader events, the government allowed congregations of millions of people from across India in religious festivals, along with huge political rallies with utter disregard to Covid appropriate behavior. ‘The message that COVID-19 was essentially over also slowed the start of India’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, which has vaccinated less than 2% of the population.’ India’s national vaccination plan soon fell apart with the government abruptly expanded vaccination to all 18 years, draining supplies, ‘and creating mass confusion and a market for vaccine doses in which states and hospital systems competed.’

The IHME estimates a staggering 1 million deaths from COVID-19 in India by Aug 01, 2021. ‘If that outcome were to happen, Modi’s Government would be responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe. India squandered its early successes in controlling COVID-19. Until April, the government’s COVID-19 task force had not met in months,’ The Lancet editorial revealed.

Besides, India also misjudged the complexities involved in procurement, distribution and for speedy inoculation of affordable Covid vaccines, at least, to its entire adult population. But, before delving into that area, let me highlight an interesting mismatch.

India’s vaccine shortage when Pfizer logs a record vaccine turnover during pandemic:

Two contrasting scenario surfaces – as the world is reeling under unprecedented disruptions caused by successive waves of Covid-19. Witnessing India’s unparalleled healthcare tragedy in Covid 2.0, the W.H.O director general said: “The situation in India is beyond heartbreaking.” Outlining the reason for the same a separate report commented: A ‘complete collapse’ of preventive health: How India’s 2nd COVID wave exploded.

Concomitantly, one reads news items, which bring out, ‘Pfizer eyes $26B in COVID-19 vaccine sales for the year, with $3.5B already in the bag.’ Notably, most vaccine companies received huge public funding much before Covid vaccines were rolled out. For example, ‘The New York Times’ article of July 22, 2020 came with a headline: ‘Pfizer Gets $1.95 Billion to Produce Coronavirus Vaccine by Year’s End.’

The Scientific American also reported on November 18, 2020, ‘For Billion-Dollar COVID Vaccines, Basic Government-Funded Science Laid the Groundwork.’ It added: ‘Much of the pioneering work on mRNA vaccines was done with government money, though drugmakers could walk away with big profits.’ That’s exactly, I reckon, is the reality today.

Similarly, Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine generated $1.73 billion in revenue during the first quarter, as compared to $3.5 billion of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine in the same quarter. Moderna now predicts its vaccine will generate $19.2 billion by year’s end. Interestingly, through its COVID-19 vaccine partnership with the U.S. government, Moderna also received nearly $1 billion in research aid. The Company is now joining a list of other vaccine players to take a supply order from the federal government.

By the same token, Serum Institute of India (SII) – the contract manufacturer of Covishield, developed and owned by Oxford University and AstraZeneca has also received initial advance funding from the governments, prior to its manufacturing.

Was India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ a pragmatic step?

Today, India is one such country facing the brunt of Covid vaccine shortage alongside arriving at an affordable price per dose of the same – a part of which is due to ‘unrealistic’ planning, as many experts believe.

For example, on January 20, the Indian government launched Vaccine Maitri – an ambitious program to export the two Indian-made shots – Covishield and Covaxin – to the world. On that exact date, India counted 14,112 fresh cases of Covid-19. Going by a report of May 01, 2021: ‘According to the government’s own submission before the Parliament, more shots were sent out of the country than administered to Indians as of mid-March.’ Many, therefore, wonder, whether this was a pragmatic decision that helped save lives of Indians during Covid pandemic.

An unprecedented development on vaccine IP waiver:

This is regarding IP waivers for Covid vaccines. In my last article, I wrote about it, stating, on October 02, 2021, India and South Africa had proposed at the WTO about an IP waiver for Covid-19 drugs and vaccines to resolve the issues of access and affordability for these products. It was also widely reported: ‘Richer members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) blocked a push by over 80 developing countries to waive patent rights in an effort to boost production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations.’

However, on May 05, 2021, a statement of the U.S. Trade Representative said, ‘as the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic call for extraordinary measures, in its service of ending this pandemic the US also supports the IP waiver for Covid-19 vaccines, although the US administration supports IP protections generally. As expected, Big Pharma lobby groups, including PhRMA, reportedly, have strongly criticized the move.

Let me hasten to add, there is, at least, one exception in this area. Months ago, on October 8, 2020, Moderna said, ‘it won’t enforce its vaccine patents against other companies during the pandemic.’ Without specifying any names, the Company revealed, ‘other Covid-19 vaccines in development might already be using Moderna-patented technology.

The WTO process is expected to begin now, but how long will it take?

As the Reuters report dated May 06, 2021 indicated – with the U.S. backing a proposed waiver of Covid-19 vaccine IP rights, the next stop is for the World Trade Organization to hammer out a deal – a process that could take months. “At a minimum, it’s going to be a month or two,” said a former Trump White House trade official who previously worked at the U.S. trade mission to the WTO in Geneva. The waiver, if happens, could also be significantly narrower in scope and shorter in duration than the one initially proposed by India and South Africa.

The relevance of IP waiver:

Currently, only drug companies which own patents or their authorized manufacturers like SII can produce Covid vaccines. A global decision on patent waiver may encourage the patentees to share the formula and manufacturing technology, instead of reverse engineering, as is done for off-patent small molecules and some biotech drugs.  All companies with requisite resources may legally manufacture Covid vaccines, in that situation, leading to cheaper, and significantly more quantity of generic versions of Covid vaccines. This may help overcoming vaccine shortages, making the vaccines affordable, as well.

Some counter arguments and response:

As I wrote in my last article, the following three critical questions may arise in that scenario:

  • Will IP waiver help solve the immediate issues of vaccine shortages?
  • Can Covid vaccines be reverse engineered by domestic pharma industry without inventors sharing ‘Know-How’?
  • If yes, how long can it take?

The answer to the first question is – it may not help resolve the immediate crisis. But, for a medium to long term solution, there will be an emphatic yes, as Covid-19 fight is expected to be a long-haul one, as experts caution about subsequent waves of rapidly mutating new Coronavirus.

Moreover, Pfizer – BioNTech vaccine took less than a year from ‘mind to market,’ with support from all concerned. This is evident from Pfizer’s Press Release for the launch of Covid vaccine in the United States last year, on December 11, 2020. Thus, an efficient reverse engineering may also take that much time to respond to medium and long-term issues with Covid vaccines, especially in India.

Subsequent Covid-19 waves could be triggered by unpredictable compliance to Covid appropriate behavior of people. W.H.O has also warned: “When personal protective measures are being relaxed, when there are mass gatherings, when there are more contagious variants and the vaccination coverage is still low this can create a perfect storm in any country,”

Conclusion:

‘The pandemic is not a competition between companies and will not end without more-equal distribution of coronavirus vaccines,’ wrote Nature on March 30, 2021. It suggested: ‘It’s time to consider a patent reprieve for COVID vaccines.’

The world needs around 11 billion doses of Coronavirus vaccines to immunize 70% of the global population – assuming two doses per person. Interestingly, around 6 billion doses are meant for high- and upper-middle-income countries, against advance orders. Poorer nations, accounting for 80% of the global population, so far, have access to less than one-third of the available vaccines. ‘Unless manufacturing and supply can be distributed more evenly, researchers forecast that it will be at least another two years before a significant proportion of people in the lowest-income countries are vaccinated’, the paper concluded.

In this situation, I reckon, a temporary IP waiver would help in accelerating the end of the pandemic. It may not help immediately, but certainly in the foreseeable future, as discussed above. It may also call for an efficient and well thought out ‘Hub and Spoke’ distribution model. Simultaneously, of course, similar systems for raw and ancillary materials for vaccine production need to put in place to avoid intermittent shortages. 

As reported on May 08, 2021, India registered a record 4,187 Covid death with 4.01 Lakh new cases, in 24 hours. Capturing the depth of the Indian crisis, ‘India Today’ is coming out with a cover page article in its May 17 issue, with the headline – ‘Covid 2.0 – The Failed State.’ Another article terms India as the ‘Flailing state in Covid storm.’

As I reasoned above, if this unprecedented step of IP waiver for Covid vaccines is finally taken by the WTO, it will significantly help India – along with the world – may not be immediately, but certainly in the foreseeable future. Only adverse impact that the decision could possibly make, is curbing Big Pharma’s unprecedented profit on Covid vaccines, and that too, during a deadly global pandemic.

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.

 

Covid 2.0 Rampages India As Top Echelon Policy Makers Ignore Science

‘India is in the endgame of COVID,’ announced the union health minister of India, just in the last month – March 08, 2021. Although, it was then clearly known to medical fraternity that today’s Covid vaccines won’t be magic bullets against rapidly mutating new Coronavirus. Interestingly, a scientific-data based MIT study, published last year – on July 01, 2020 predicted that India might record the highest ever in the world – 287,000 new Coronavirus cases per day, by February 2021. At that juncture also Covid vaccines were expected to be available in India before that predicted time frame. The MIT study warning received a wide coverage even in India - by almost all news dailies, on that very month of the last year. The national Covid management team did not seem to have taken it seriously, along with others. These include, besides the top echelon of governance – a vast majority of Indians – across the social, political, religious and economic strata.

The fallout of such callousness – both at the individual Covid-appropriate behavior level, as well as Covid governance level, have been more disastrous than what was forecasted even in the above MIT study. The ferocity and scale of the second Covid-19 wave in India did not just overwhelm the nation, but raised grave concern across the world too. On April 22, 2021, India recorded the world’s biggest ever single-day rise with 314,835 new cases of Covid-19, causing death to 2,104 people. The very next day, this number increased to 332,730 new cases with 2263 deaths.

But, the peak of the Covid second wave hasn’t come, just yet. According to a mathematical model developed by a team of scientists from the IIT Kanpur and reported by news media on April 22, 2021, the number of active covid-19 cases in India during the second wave is expected to peak in May. The daily infection count is expected to exceed 350,000 cases. In this article, I shall dwell on three specific areas – acknowledging that the current scenario is the outcome of national misjudgment, if not a humongous misgovernance to prepare India for Covid 2.0:

  • Current struggle of India’s fragile and long-ignored health care infrastructure.
  • Need to neutralize some general misgivings on Covid vaccines and associated dilemmas.
  • Who is equipped to save people, if no external remedial measures remain unavailable for some more time?

India’s fragile and long-ignored health infrastructure can’t take anymore:

Amid this calamity, India has run short of oxygen, hospital beds, important Covid medicines, including Remdesivir. Curiously, reports keep coming incessantly confirm and reconfirm: ‘Ever since the second wave of the pandemic started, the healthcare systems in India have been teetering on the brink, with many hospitals unable to handle the relentless inflow of patients whilst also running short of beds, oxygen cylinders and other essentials.’

Doctors and many health care workers are overwhelmed by the massive scale of the human tragedy and in tears, as they articulate: ‘Many lives could have been saved had there been enough beds, oxygen supplies, ventilators and other resources – if the healthcare system had been better prepared for the second wave.’

The Supreme Court intervened, noting the ‘grim situation’ in the country:

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of India, reportedly, ‘Suo motu’ (on its own) took note of the grim situation in the country and the havoc caused due to shortage of Oxygen cylinders in hospitals. Consequently, on April 22, 2021, the top court said, ‘it expected the Centre to come out with a “national plan” on the supply of oxygen and essential drugs for treatment of infected patients and method and manner of vaccination against the disease.’  The Delhi High Court also observed, “We all know that this country is being run by God,” coming down heavily on the Centre over the Covid-19 management.

Some Covid vaccine related misgivings and dilemmas:

Many people are raising questions of the efficacy of two currently available Covid vaccines in India – Covishield and Covaxin, especially against our probably ‘desi’ double mutant variety of Covid-19. The trepidation increased manifold when India’s former Prime Minister – Dr. Manmohan Singh got Covid infected after taking two doses of Covaxin. Or, reports, such as: ‘Sri Lanka reports six cases of blood clots in AstraZeneca vaccine recipients, 3 dead.’ Incidentally, these vaccines were made in India. Some may not possibly know that both the issues have been deliberated by the Indian scientists, who haven’t expressed any concern, as yet. This has to be shared with all by all concerned, soon. Let me explore some of these related issues, as follows:

Re-infection after taking Covid vaccines:

Regarding re-infection rate after taking two doses of Covid vaccines, the scientists have now released data establishing that only a very small fraction of those vaccinated with either Covaxin or Covishield, have tested positive. In any case, instances of a few “breakthrough” infections do not undermine the efficacy of the vaccines, they added.

The ICMR has also clarified, “These vaccines definitely protect against disease. However, the immune response begins to develop usually two weeks after every dose and there are variations within individuals, too. Even after the first dose, if exposure to the virus happens, one can test positive.”

Efficacy of Covishield and Covaxin against double mutant strains:

Notably, both – the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) have announced last week that Covishield and Covaxin protect patients even from the ‘double mutant’, B.1.617, variety of Covid-19. Scientists believe that the “double mutant” is responsible for the sudden spike in the number of cases in Maharashtra and other parts of the country. They had earlier feared that this “double mutant” or B.1.617, may escape the immune system and thus vaccines may not offer protection from this strain of the novel coronavirus.

Reported risk of blood clotting with Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine:

No cases of blood clotting have come to light in India. However, a government panel of experts is,reportedly, investigating for any domestic cases of blood clotting, even mild ones, as a side effect of the two COVID-19 vaccines being administered in India. According to India’s leading virologist Gagandeep Kang, “blood clots reportedly caused as a result of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine amount to a very small risk.”

As reported on April 24, 2021, the United States has also decided to immediately resume the use of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, ending a 10-day pause to investigate its link to extremely rare but potentially deadly blood clots. These details, I reckon, need also to be shared with all people, soon, in order to neutralize any doubt on administering Covid vaccines.

Covid vaccine availability and pricing:

Recent media reports highlight, at least six states of India – Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Odisha and Telangana – are facing Covid vaccine shortage, as Covid 2.0 overwhelms India. Most of these states have already apprised the Centre of the situation, as the Supreme Court of India also seeks the details from the center about its current status.

As on April 22, 2021, India has administered over 135 million vaccine doses, where each individual will require two doses. Whereas, as published in Bloomberg on April 23, 2021, ‘1 billion Covid-19 vaccines have been administered around the world.’ The good news is, effective May 01, 2021, everyone above the age of 18 years will be eligible to get vaccinated. The Central Government will also lift its singular control on supply and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines in a bid to tackle the massive rise of cases that have crippled the country’s health infrastructure.

That said, the key question that follows – would Covid vaccine manufacturers be able to meet this increasing demand in India, when there already exists more demand than its supply? According to Niti Aayog Covid-19: Vaccine availability will improve by July 2021. The two major vaccine manufacturers in India are also indicating broadly similar time frame.

Meanwhile, amid a deadly second wave of Covid infections, a third Coronavirus vaccine - Russia’s Sputnik V, has been approved for emergency use in India. Incidentally, Sputnik V’s approval came not before India overtook Brazil to become the country with the second-highest number of cases globally. According to its local distributor – Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, India will start receiving Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine by end May.

Be that as it may, it is still unclear whether enough Covid vaccine doses will be available right from May 1, 2021, to start inoculating all Indians above 18 years of age, across the length and breadth of the country. Besides, SSI’s decision to fix the rate of Covishield vaccine for private hospitals and state governments, has attracted sharp criticism from the Opposition, who argued that there was no logic in charging the state governments a higher price, when the Centre is getting the same vaccine at Rs 150 per dose.

This question surfaces, especially when SII Chief himself acknowledged that they are making profit even with Rs.150/per dose price as the pandemic ravages the nation. A news item of April 24, 2021 also underscores ‘Serum Institute’s Rs.600/dose for Covishield in private hospitals is its highest rate in the world.’ Nonetheless, price sensitivity to Covid vaccines during the pandemic is not specific to India.

Shareholders of Pfizer, J&J, reportedly, are also pushing for detailed COVID-19 pricing strategies of the respective companies, at their annual meetings. Curiously, at the same, yet another report highlights: ‘With the competition struggling, Pfizer’s COVID vaccine sales could hit $24B this year.’ Amazing!

India utterly overwhelmed, angry outbursts of concern beyond its shores:

Witnessing the nature of rampage caused by Covid 2.0 in India, global press blames the Indian top policy makers for utter failure to anticipate and tackle the devastating second wave. For example, The Guardian of the UK flashed a headline on April 21, 2021 – ‘The system has collapsed’: India’s descent into Covid hell.’ It further elaborated: ‘Many falsely believed that the country had defeated Covid. Now hospitals are running out of oxygen and bodies are stacking up in morgues.’ The Times, UK was harsher. It reported, ‘Modi flounders in India’s gigantic second wave.’ It further added: ‘Record levels of infection have put huge strain on the health service and highlighted the perils of complacency in the nationalist government.’

The New York Times reported on April 23, 2021: ‘India’s Health System Cracks Under the Strain as Coronavirus Cases Surge.’ The report also cited examples of ‘recent political rallies held by Mr. Modi that have drawn thousands, as well as the government’s decision to allow an enormous Hindu festival to continue despite signs that it has become a super spreader event.’

Conclusion:

Keeping aside the responsibility, or rather lack of it, of the National Covid governance team, individual Indians – like you and me – can’t in any way shy away from our own responsibility of compliance to Covid appropriate behavior, religiously. We are equally responsible, at least, for our own lives and fate. Even today, many of those who are wearing a face mask, are wearing in the chin – keeping the nose exposed – forget about double masking! Moreover, how many of us were or are eligible for Covid vaccination till date, but did not or could not take?

Curiously, Covid 2.0 is no longer striking mostly the poor urban population, living in slums or hutments, or the migrant laborer. Nor it is attacking mainly the senior citizens or people with co-morbidities. More young people, including children are getting infected in Covid 2.0. In Covid 2.0 – over 90 per cent of Covid new cases concentrate in in high rise and other buildings in major cities, like Mumbai. While urban slums account for just 10 per cent. On April 24, 2021, Bloomberg also reported, ‘India’s Urban Affluent Hit By New Virus Wave After Dodging First.’

Terming Covid 2.0 as concerning and scaring‘, Tata Sons Chairman also said, ‘India needs to get as many different Covid-19 vaccine licenses as possible. And replicate multiple factories on a war footing to ramp up production in order to meet the requirements as the country reels under the devastating second wave of the pandemic.’ It’s incredible, how a small country in the Indian subcontinent – Bhutan with limited resources, got its vaccination plan right and carried out, reportedly, the world’s fastest immunization drive.

Coming back to the last year’s above MIT study forecast for 2021 Covid situation in India. It goes without saying that this one, among several others, was based on credible data. It also brought to the fore the scientific reasons of consequences for not following the norms of Covid appropriate behavior. Looking back and coming back to real life scenario of date, one thing becomes crystal clear. When science is ignored, both at the highest echelon of national governance where the buck stops – or at the individual, social, religious or political level – it is virtually inevitable that a disaster would strike. And in most cases, it will strike hard – very hard. Much beyond what a human can withstand to survive. We have choice for survival – even in today’s frightening scenario. Let’s individually and collectively behave, as the science demands. Life and livelihood are important – for all of us.

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.

 

 

With Covid’s Second Wave ‘A Nation In Distress’ – Why?

If someone tries to see a silver lining in the disruptive Covid-19 pandemic, besides its vaccine rollout in some countries, there will be at least one. As of April 17, 2021- over 119 million patients (India – over 12 million), reportedly, have recovered out of 141 million (India – over 15 million) of Covid infected patients.

But this can’t mask the grim reality of over 18 million patients remain still infected, with over 3 million deaths (India – 175,673), since the beginning of the Covid menace. In the Indian perspective, this is the highest ever incidence of death – in absolute numbers – for any reason, so far. Now comes the Covid second wave with its more devastation onslaught on human lives and other consequences for the nation.

In this article, I shall explore this area, as apparently a Tsunami-like the second Covid wave starts sweeping across the India states, posing a greater danger than the first one, to the lives and livelihoods of millions of Indians, yet again. Let me start with a perspective, leading to the current situation.

No clinically proven drugs, as yet:

There aren’t any definite or clinically proven drugs after completion of Phase III studies, as yet, for curing patients from Covid infection. Nor are there any such well proven vaccines with fully known efficacy, safety, time interval between two doses, duration of prevention from Covid infection, in the future. All drugs and vaccines are currently being used under ‘emergency use’ approval by country drug regulators, based on interim results.

At the very onset of Covid-19 first wave, other than some attempts of repurposing older drugs, the world did not have any proven drugs to fight against this deadly infection. The old antimalarial drug Hydroxychloroquine – was tried first, followed by other medications, such as, Lopinavir/Ritonavir. Both created a huge global demand and subsequent shortages, including in the pharmacy of the world– India. Subsequently, W.H.O discontinued hydroxychloroquine and lopinavir/ritonavir treatment arms for COVID-19 based on interim clinical trial data. These results showed, hydroxychloroquine and lopinavir/ritonavir produce little or no reduction in the mortality of hospitalized COVID-19 patients when compared to standard of care.

At the beginning of the second wave of Covid-19, one of the latest repurposed drugs – remdesivir that is being widely used, especially for hospitalized patients, is also facing a shortage, even in the pharmacy of the world. Interestingly, even ‘Remdesivir has little or no impact on survival, WHO trial shows’.

Also – no clinically fully proven Covid-19 vaccines, as yet:

Possibly, the second-best antidote as of date, against rapidly mutating Covid-19 – after Covid-appropriate behavior by all, comes vaccines. All comes with ‘emergency use’ approval, based on interim results only, and with several challenges. These include efficacy against all mutating Covid-19 variants, exact safety profile, dosage interval and duration of protection. Interestingly, on April 16, 2021, Pfizer indicated that ‘Covid-19 vaccine recipients will “likely” need a third dose between six to 12 months after they’re fully vaccinated and suggested vaccinations for coronavirus could be needed every year.’ In this evolving scenario, Indian experts also acknowledge that - abidance to the defined health norms stays as a lifeguard, and will remain so for an indefinite period.

Several countries, including India, are making, and gradually expanding requisite arrangements to vaccinate their population. Whereas a large number of countries – mostly in the developing world, are still awaiting access to Covid vaccines. Meanwhile, another issue has started bothering many, which the April 10, 2021 issue of The Guardian had captured in its headline – ‘Global Covid vaccine rollout is threatened by a shortage of vital components,’ besides manufacturing capacity constraints compared to the current demand.

Global challenges with Covid vaccines in 2021:

As things have progressed with Covid vaccines, thus far, the year 2021 doesn’t seem to be a smooth run to vaccinate people across the world, deriving a significant outcome against the battle of this global menace. This gets vindicated by the following numbers, as published in the ‘Down to Earth’ magazine on April 13, 2021.

  • According to the Johns Hopkins University, United States, as of April 12, 2021, only 773 million Covid-19 vaccines had been administered across the world. This means, only a little more than 2 per cent of the world’s adult population, has been inoculated so far.
  • According to data analytics firm Airfinity, the world will manufacture 9.5 billion doses by the end 2021. Whereas immediate global need exceeds 14 billion doses to vaccinate the entire adult population.
  • According to Gavi – The Vaccine Alliance, this represents almost three times the number of vaccines the world was producing in the pre-pandemic period for other diseases.

In the midst of these, inoculation with, at least, two major Covid-19 vaccines – one from AstraZenecaand other from Johnson & Johnson, have raised safety concern in the United States and many European countries. These ongoing developments complicate Covid vaccine challenges further.

The Indian scenario – ‘a nation in distress?’

Despite building new and a workable emergency health infrastructure by several state governments to combat Covid-19 pandemic, the fierce attack of the second wave with mutating Covid-19 virus, has already made these bursting at the seams. The article - ‘A tsunami of cases’: desperation as Covid second wave batters India, appeared in ‘The Guardian’ on April 14, 2021, captures this desperate struggle of the nation. Another recent report depicted with grim pictures, how India is grappling with the second wave of Covid-19, terming it as ‘a nation in distress.’ There are enough indications that India’s fragile health infrastructure has already collapsed in some places.

According to another news item on April 14, 2021, more than 111 million people has been vaccinated in India, by that time. Notably, this number was achieved after fears of AstraZeneca’s Covishield vaccine shortages, which subsequently prompted the Indian Government to temporarily halt its exports by the Pune-based vaccine manufacturer – Serum Institute of India (SII).

Going by another estimate, if the current momentum continues, India would be able to vaccinate 40% of its population by December 2021, and 60% of the population by May 2022. The report cautions that ‘the non-availability of vaccines may scuttle the pace.’ As per the W.H.O release, three in five Indians need to be vaccinated, to reach herd immunity. For which, the country needs 145 crore doses of vaccine by May 2022. India currently has the capacity to manufacture 100 crore-130 crore doses per year, as per a Rajya Sabha committee report. Another report of April 10, 2021 also highlights, ‘at least 10 states in India have reported a vaccine shortage and many vaccine centers have been reported shut.’

My wife and I also experienced the Covishield vaccine shortage in Mumbai. Our scheduled online appointment for vaccination through Co-Win website of the Government at Sir HN Reliance Hospital,Girgaon, Mumbai, for April 17, 2021, was cancelled. At past 10 pm on April 16, 2021, the hospital rang us up to inform that they have closed their Covid vaccination center till fresh vaccine stocks reach them.

To combat the Covid pandemic – ‘Pharmacy of the World’ goes local:

Yes, to combat the Covid pandemic, the ‘Pharmacy of the World’ goes local for some critical Covid drugs and vaccines, several times in the past. This happened earlier with drugs, like Hydroxychloroquine, when India banned its export to cater to the domestic need for Covid treatment. It happened again now, as ‘Remdesivir, API and formulation were placed under Export ban on 11.04.2021.’

Similarly, India has now, reportedly, put a temporary hold on all major exports of the AstraZeneca’sCoronavirus vaccine (Covishield in India), made by the SII, amid an increase in domestic demand due to a surge in infection. As the news item highlights: ‘It will also affect supplies to Gavi, the W.H.O backed vaccine alliance, through which more than 190 participating economies – 98 higher-income and 92 low and middle-income, are expected to get vaccine doses.’ Such temporary measures are now necessary for India to effectively respond to India’s Covid fight – especially the vaccine crunch.

India’s current vaccine imbroglio, as Covid second wave strikes hard:

Besides the SII, a second Indian company — Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, was given permission in January for emergency use of its Covaxin, developed in collaboration with the ICMR. Although, Bharat Biotech can make 12.5 million doses each month, these will be a small proportion of the doses administered in the country, so far.

To effectively respond to the prevailing vaccine crunch, Indian Government already approved the ‘emergency use’ of Sputnik V vaccine, which will be imported till its domestic production commences. Further, the country’s health authorities have now decided to consider the grant of ‘emergency use’ approval of several other internationally developed vaccines, such as, Pfizer – BioNTech double-dose vaccine and Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine. At least, till then, India’s vaccine imbroglio to vaccinate all adult population in the country, irrespective of age – particularly when Covid second wave is not sparing the young adults, is expected to continue.

Conclusion:

The jaw-dropping pandemic situation, and the pathway to deal with this crisis, especially in India, is getting increasingly complicated in every passing day. As reported on April 16, 2021, Covid-19 is now fooling RT-PCR tests – the most reliable type of Covid test as on date. It is so alarming because: ‘A false negative report is bad for the patient as they might delay consulting a doctor. It’s also bad for others, as the patient might not isolate, and spread the virus around,’ as the report underscores. It has started happening because: ‘Multiple mutations in the coronavirus over 15 months are making parts of it unrecognizable to lab tests.’

Experts are trying to fathom, whether or not more people are dying in India’s Covid second wave, as compared to the equivalent time period of the first wave. This causes an added cause of great concern because, in the six months before the start of the second wave (from September 2020 to January 2021), India’s overall case fatality rate (CFR) was only around 1.1%. This means only 1.1% of cases resulted in deaths. Currently, at the very beginning of the second wave, CFR has already increased to 1.3% and remains below peak levels seen in the first wave – as of date.

Above all, many people – virtually from all social, political, religious and economic strata, are openly flouting the basic norms of Covid appropriate behavior, as daily seen on different TV news channels. Ironically, these are happening at a time, when Indian health care infrastructure is creaking against the enormous and devastating power of the second wave Covid pandemic.

‘Pharmacy of the world’ has also gone local for some critical Covid-19 drugs and vaccines, to save lives and livelihoods of the Indian population, having no other better alternative in sight, at this hour. Isn’t this a sign of ‘A Nation in Distress’ that makes a fervent appeal to all of us, at least, to behave properly – by religiously following the lifesaving Covid guidelines?

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.