Should have waited for Bharat Biotech trial results to be out; ideally, the vaccine should be free for everybody
Given the havoc it has wrought, it is obvious the world, and India, needs a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 urgently; not surprisingly every country has accelerated the timelines for the vaccine, given faster clearances based on very small samples—an issue that Krishna Ella, chairman and managing director of Bharat Biotech, brought up in his press conference on Monday—and also given them amnesty against possible legal action.
But, in hurrying the last step in the clearance process, the government has hurt both its own credibility as well as those of firms like Bharat Biotech which, has undoubtedly, a good reputation in other vaccines like the ones against rotavirus and Zika virus. While SP leader Akhilesh Yadav did a disservice to the country by speaking of a ‘BJP vaccine’, the government didn’t do much better by speaking of how ‘in-house cynics’ had ‘first questioned the valour of our soldiers and are not unhappy that the two vaccines to get DCGI nod are make-in-India”; this is not about vaccine nationalism, but the government’s response is making it look like it is.
Though few have questioned the clearance given to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine being produced by Serum Institute in India, the fact is that the phase 3 trials being conducted by Serum in India are still not complete. By giving an emergency clearance to the Serum-Oxford vaccine, India’s drug authorities appear to have taken into account the data from the foreign trials; for the clearance to hold, though, Serum’s data will have to show equally good results. Even here, as Ella brought out, the authorities have tended to give developers a lot more leeway than usual; if an Indian trial had resulted in people getting half the dose they were supposed to—as happened in the case of the Oxford-AstraZeneca trial—Ella pointed out, the vaccine would have been shut down.
Unlike in the case of Oxford-AstraZeneca, however, in the case of the Bharat Biotech vaccine, there are no such global tests to rely upon. So, it is not clear what the drug authorities meant when they said the vaccine would be administered in clinical trial mode or as a back-up, more so since clinical trials use volunteers. Is the Bharat Biotech vaccine only to be given to those who want to volunteer, or is to be given if the Serum vaccines fall short? Why not wait for a few months more till the clinical trials for Bharat Biotech are over; in any case, as Ella said, the vaccine developer has the largest phase 3 clinical trials in India.
Even more odd is the silence over what the final vaccine strategy is going to be, other than the fact that at-risk groups—health practitioners and the elderly or those with co-morbidities—will be vaccinated first. While vaccine expert group head, VK Paul, has talked about free vaccination for all in the priority groups as identified by the Negvac, Union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan has talked about free vaccination in the “first phase” without making it clear how big the first phase is to be. As this newspaper has argued before, the moment the vaccine becomes voluntary—as it does when it is not being administered for free by the government—the chances of herd immunity developing get hit.
Ideally, then, the vaccine should be free for everyone, with the responsibility for immunisation—using the private sector as well—be solely that of the government. And, just as the prime minister did so effectively in the case of the #GiveItUp campaign for LPG, let him exhort those who can afford it—including corporates using their CSR funds—to pay for the vaccine.