If a vaccine candidate proves successful, the govt should consider making it a part of its universal vaccination programme.
By Ashwajit Singh
As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, the one solution which keeps us going and gives us hope for the future is the development of a successful vaccine. While there are multiple vaccines under research and development all around the world, including in India, the real question is of making these available in an equitable manner.
There are a number of potential vaccine candidates—approximately 133 globally, according to the World Health Organisation—that are in various stages of clinical trials; hence, there will not be one single country or company dominating vaccine production, unless companies like Astra Zeneca keep signing deals with governments for supply if their candidate proves successful. However, the issue at hand is that there is no guarantee by health experts whether there will be an effective and safe vaccine to use, and if there eventually is one, by when the public would get it. The US has already started production of dozens of vaccines before having proved them to be effective; in the current scenario, this might just work, because if the vaccine succeeds, then the US would have saved precious time in the fight against the pandemic.
Substantial progress has been made on vaccine development, with US-based Moderna set to enter the third phase of testing in July by enrolling 30,000 people; Oxford will be testing Chadox1 on children, and China seems confident of coming up with a vaccine within the year. Around 14 Indian companies seem to be making some progress, too. At least three of the WHO-listed 133 vaccines are being manufactured in collaboration with Indian companies. The Serum Institute of India has tied up with British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to produce two billion doses of a vaccine undergoing trial. Recently, its CEO said that the trial results would be out by August-end, and if they show positive results, then the vaccine could be rolled out by September.
India has also pledged $15 million to Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi). As cases rise exponentially in India and other middle-income countries like Brazil, it becomes even more important that low and middle-income countries have access to the vaccine, irrespective of where it is developed.
Health experts all over the world are concerned about richer countries monopolising global supply of these vaccines. During the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, a similar scene got played out. The equitable distribution of vaccine is a critical step towards controlling the spread of the disease.
Thanks to aggressive efforts to cover 90% of children by immunisation, India has a robust network of health workers, gram panchayat members, teachers, religious leaders and self-help groups, who have helped create awareness around benefits of immunisation over the years. It will need to rely on these networks established over the years to ensure that the vaccine reaches every Indian. We need to ensure that socio-economic “hierarchies” don’t cast a shadow on access to vaccines in the country, with the rich cornering all the flow in the early days. The government needs to, therefore, include the Covid-19 vaccine under its Universal Immunisation Programme once trials show success.
India has struggled in the past to achieve immunisation for all, and a report by Unicef includes it in a list of top-10 countries that account for 60% of unprotected children, or those who haven’t been fully immunised. To ensure universal availability of the Covid-19 vaccine would not only be an opportunity to control the pandemic, but also to fix whatever gaps remain in India’s immunisation delivery mechanism.
The author is Managing Director, IPE Global
Views are personal