Soaring COVID-19 cases and delayed vaccine approvals: What it means for the nation

April 8, 2021 10:49 AM

India is once again seeing a daily surge in COVID-19 cases with five most affected states being Maharashtra (3,057,885), Kerala (1,135,233), Karnataka (1,015,155), Andhra Pradesh (907,676), and Tamil Nadu (899,807), according to Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

covid 19 vaccineAfter braving the pandemic, getting accustomed to the new normal, practicing social distancing measures and most importantly achieving quick results on the vaccine front, seems like we are going in reverse.

By Dr. Amir Ullah Khan, 

India is once again seeing a daily surge in COVID-19 cases with five most affected states being Maharashtra (3,057,885), Kerala (1,135,233), Karnataka (1,015,155), Andhra Pradesh (907,676), and Tamil Nadu (899,807), according to Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. As a result, parts of the country are observing lockdowns and people retreating to their homes. After braving the pandemic, getting accustomed to the new normal, practicing social distancing measures and most importantly achieving quick results on the vaccine front, seems like we are going in reverse.

There is an urgent need to learn from the trials of the previous year. On the medical front, the scientific community joined hands and continues to work together with the support of modern technology and rapid healthcare solutions. In this fight against the virus, several vaccine candidates have come up.

While in India, COVAXIN and COVISHIELD are providing the necessary support and we have administered over 80 million doses so far (Source: CoWin dashboard), we need to look at stepping up the vaccination drive owing to the deadly second wave of infections.

In addition to the increasing number of cases and rising panic, we also must understand that to quickly inoculate a population of this magnitude, we need to take support of other vaccine candidates. From 1 March, the eligibility criteria were expanded to include people over 60 and those who are between 45 and 59 but have other illnesses. The third phase of its vaccination drive with everyone above the age of 45 eligible for the jab was launched on 1 April. This also implies that the ones who were vaccinated in the initial days of the vaccination drive, are now ready for their second dose and so they have to be prioritised over the ones who haven’t received a single shot.

Still, production of the two vaccines approved by the government cannot meet both Indian and global needs quickly enough. The first thing the government should do, therefore, is accelerate approval of some of the vaccines in use in other countries. If those companies can’t expand production quickly enough, the government should pursue licensing agreements to make their vaccines in India.

As we know, one of the vaccine candidates is Russia’s Sputnik V, world’s first registered vaccine based on a well-studied human adenoviral vector-based platform. The vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya National Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, is based on a safe and tested human adenovirus vector platform.

Sputnik V is a two-vector vaccine against coronavirus. Also known as Gam-COVID-Vac, the vaccine uses a heterologous recombinant adenovirus approach using adenovirus 26 (Ad26) and adenovirus 5 (Ad5) as vectors for the expression of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) spike protein. The use of two varying serotypes, which are given 21 days apart, is intended to overcome any pre-existing adenovirus immunity in the population. Among the major COVID vaccines in development to date, only Gam-COVID-Vac uses this approach.

To date Sputnik V has been approved in 59 countries globally with total of over 1.5 billion people. Recently, Lancet, one of the most reputed journals in the world has published the outcomes of the phase III of the clinical trials of Sputnik V. Phase III of the clinical trials proves the efficacy of the vaccine. The paper has confirmed positive results and provided more data about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine in different subgroups. It has also stated that the vaccine ensures full protection against severe cases of COVID-19 exceeding 75% ratio of Pfizer. Russian vaccine is 91.6% effective with 91.8% for volunteers over 60 years old.

Most recently, Panacea Biotec has entered into an agreement with RDIF to produce 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V in India annually. RDIF has also collaborated with Stelis Biopharma, the biopharmaceutical arm of Bengaluru-headquartered Strides Pharma Science, that will be making and supplying at least 200 million doses of Sputnik V. The latest agreement is expected to increase India’s capacity to make this vaccine to around 550 million doses a year. Stelis is the fourth Indian company to partner with RDIF for Sputnik V and will be the third manufacturer of the Russian vaccine here. The others being Hyderabad-based Gland Pharma, Hetero Biopharma, another Hyderabad firm and Dr Reddy’s Laboratories. Virchow Biotech is the fourth Indian company to sign a production agreement with RDIF.

India has acted as the hub for testing samples of the Sputnik V vaccine, which were also produced in the country. The country has taken the onus of producing million doses of the vaccine- both for local use as well as for export. This is to say that with India’s image as world’s biggest vaccine maker and world-class production and export capabilities, it is the ideal partner to Russia’s long-standing track record as medical pioneers. We therefore need to sort the use of other vaccine candidates such as Sputnik V for emergency use authorisation without delay so that more and more people in India can be vaccinated and get back to normal lives.

(The author is an Economist at MCRHRDI of the Government of Telangana and a former adviser with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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