I assure people that in a few months, we will have a vaccine, developed and researched in India: Harsh Vardhan

In conversation with superstar Amitabh Bachchan and The Indian Express Executive Director Anant Goenka, at a 26/11 special event showcasing corona warriors who epitomise the stories of strength that mark Mumbai — which was telecast on Star Plus on Sunday night — Guest of Honour Dr Harsh Vardhan talks about Prime Minister Modi’s efforts and the role of India’s immunisation programme in fighting Covid.

November 30, 2020 6:18:21 pm

Amitabh Bachchan: There is perhaps no better person to talk about our fight against Covid than you, as both the Health Minister and a senior doctor. What amazes me is that in the midst of this massive crisis, desh ke kone-kone mein sewa bhaav ki kai mashaalen prajwalit dikheen (we saw this sense of service across the country). Do you want to tell us something about this?

Harsh Vardhan: You have asked a very good question. I want to remind you that even 25-26 years ago, when the campaign to rid India of polio was started and I joined the programme in Delhi, I can’t tell you the scale in which ordinary people and NGOs participated. That convinced me that Bharat ke DNA mein ek paropkar ka aur sewa ka bhaav hai (there is a sense of service and generosity in the DNA of India), an inherent goodness, a basic humanity. When Covid struck, one could have said that fighting it was the job of NGOs or the government… I remember the video-conference meeting NITI Aayog organised for me with thousands of such organisations working on the ground… However, beyond them, who I consider heroes in this Covid war are ordinary people.

I will share just a few examples, of people who left food outside doors of their neighbours afflicted with Covid during the lockdown; others who turned up in huge numbers to help out stray dogs, cows, birds, who could no longer depend on leftovers. I heard about one Uber driver who refused to take a passenger in Delhi who wasn’t wearing a mask, saying he couldn’t put society at risk for the sake of his job or a few hundred rupees… There are thousands of such examples… This shows that when anyone needs help, many more rise on their own to help… We saw the same in the case of migrant labourers, jitni takleef mein ye the, kitne saare log unki sahaayta ke liye khade ho gaye (the hardships they faced, so many people stood with them). And that period of hardship too passed, and there was no setback in fighting Covid. I want to say ‘Hats off to the common man… and hats off to every Indian… I salute them’.

Amitabh Bachchan: The question foremost in everyone’s minds is regarding a vaccine. When do you think a vaccine would be available, including for the general public?

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Harsh Vardhan: The capacity and capability of India in production of vaccines is well-known. We provide 60 per cent of the vaccines needed by developing countries, and about one-fourth the world’s requirement. Roughly, more than 100 candidates for Covid vaccine are under various stages of development round the world, and 30 of them in India. Of these 30, five are in various stages of clinical trial, two in an advanced stage, two in the preclinical trial stage… As per the internal reports available with us, the talks that are on, I am fully hopeful of a vaccine being available in the beginning of 2021, a safe vaccine with good efficacy. Regarding its availability to the public, there is no denying that we can’t inoculate 135 crore people all at once. However, as per our planning, by June-July, almost 30 crore people will get the vaccine, among whom we will prioritise first, health workers, in the government and private sector, then frontline workers in the field whether it is the police, paramilitary or Army, corporation employees or sanitation workers, followed by those above the age of 65, then those between 50 and 65, and then those younger who have comorbidities such as diabetes, heart conditions.

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India has shown that it can achieve such a feat, having rid the country of polio in 2014. At lakhs of centres in the country, the polio vaccine is stored at minus 20 degrees Centigrade and then two drops administered to children… We have the world’s most robust Universal Immunisation Programme, including 12 vaccinations. So, we have the experience, and there are detailed preparations on regarding how to cover the targeted groups in 2021. The states are on board, and we have converted our eVIN or Electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network into a COVIN platform. This platform will have the list of all the potential beneficiaries, the schedule of when they will get the vaccine, and where they would have to go, information regarding which would be sent on SMS. The platform will also hold information regarding who gave the vaccine, where, and when. People who are vaccinated will get certificates on the same platform, and will also be sent reminders for the second dose.

We will track where the vaccine is stored, at what temperature, and provide training to our vaccinators, as well as organisations such as NGOs which would be roped in. We have already started talks with NGOs… So I assure people that very soon, in the next few months, we will have a safe, effective vaccine, developed and researched in the country.

Amitabh Bachchan: Has there been work on such a scale before in the country? And are there still problems that you foresee in the vaccination efforts?

Harsh Vardhan: As I said earlier, it is not the first time that India is working in the field of research and development of a vaccine. We have seen research on rotavirus, typhoid, Japanese encephalitis, malaria… Normally such research takes years, however our scientists have achieved a miracle given the Covid emergency, not just in India but across the world, ensuring a vaccine within a year… We have been working for the past three months now on ensuring that the vaccine reaches all the corners of our large country, the remote villages, Adivasi areas, mountains, jungles… figuring out how many more vaccine carriers and health workers would we need, the number of extra refrigerators and refrigerated vans required, the amount of syringes needed, the training that would have to be organised… In fact, our COVIN platform’s technology can help other countries too in working out their logistics. It foresees all situations that might arise, even adverse reactions. Our advisory group of experts has secretaries of all departments, officers from the Indian Academy of Paediatrics, AIIMS doctors, state governments. The experience we have due to our polio eradication and Universal Immunisation Programme will help us. We are lucky that the Prime Minister is himself monitoring this, going into the minutest details, holding two-three-hour-long meetings… We should be grateful that we have such a visionary leader inspiring and guiding us.

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Anant Goenka: Some doubts have been raised about India’s low Covid fatality rate. If the rate is correct, what do you think is the main reason?

We have been absolutely transparent about our data… sharing it with the country, the world… hardly anyone else has been as transparent. We have been 100 per cent honest and given evidence of our numbers. The testing strategy that we put in place from the start, the tracking, contact tracing, early diagnosis, early treatment, provision of facilities… the journey that started with one laboratory has now crossed the 2,100 mark. We are testing 10-15 lakh people, 97 per cent of the country has a testing facility within 3 km. We organised dedicated Covid hospitals, healthcare facilities, care centres, to ensure 20 lakh beds across the country, with oxygen support, or in ICUs. There are around 13,000 quarantine centres. Now the same country where there was a shortage of PPEs, daily news about N95 masks or ventilators, which would import expensive testing kits, is producing all these in large quantities. Today we produce more than 10 lakh testing kits daily… We are now in a position to offer these to other countries… Bharat has achieved this due to its ability, its capacity… It’s our DNA, our confidence, the Prime Minister also talks of Aatmanirbhar Bharat.

The strategy we followed from the start is the reason we have this low fatality rate. Even the recovery rate, if I am not mistaken, is 94 per cent. Of 90 lakh people infected, 85-86 lakh have been treated, around four lakh are active cases, many also on the road to recovery. I believe this has brought us to a situation where people are taking Covid lightly, saying what’s the big deal, we will get better… especially in Delhi. So, while most of the country is seeing a decline in cases, at some places cases shoot up at times. Still, India has performed exceptionally against Covid, leaving some of the most developed countries in the world behind.

Anant Goenka: The second wave of the Spanish Flu (1918-19) had proved more fatal? Is that a cause for worry?

Harsh Vardhan: I have read about the Spanish Flu, but the fact is our actions from the start have been keeping the worst in mind. We saw our first Covid case on January 30; it was in January (first week) that China had informed the WHO about this new virus causing pneumonia-like symptoms. Within 24-48 hours, we had our first meetings on Covid in the Health Ministry, by 17th, detailed advisories had gone out across the country, surveillance had started at all entry points, airports, ports, borders. We also started community surveillance. The point I am trying to make is that we were pro-active, preemptive and graded in our response even before the WHO had declared the coronavirus an emergency of international concern.

As for whether this is the first wave or the second wave, we are studying research across the world, our Science Ministry, my Health Ministry, all our scientists are working on this.

Amitabh Bachchan: What would be your advice for the country till a vaccine is available?

Harsh Vardhan: I said this right at the beginning, perhaps during the lockdown, when there was no inkling of a vaccine in the near future, that the best vaccine, the most powerful and potent vaccine, available to us is ‘social vaccine’. I described ‘social vaccine’ as using a mask fully covering the nose and mouth, not removing it while talking, eating in private so as to not remove it in front of other people, maintaining a distance of two yards, washing hands with soap, and coughing, sneezing into our elbows. We told everyone not to wait for the actual vaccine but have faith in this ‘social vaccine’.

I held the first meeting on Covid in January. Eleven months later, I can say with confidence, after having made a round of all the hospitals, Covid wards in Delhi, met so many people, maybe sometimes without adequate distancing, that ‘social vaccine’ has protected me, it has protected countless people… I want to urge people that the message that we are giving, please follow it closely and truthfully. Avoid crowded places, or going unnecessarily to markets and social gatherings. It is perhaps the most important thing one can do in the fight against Covid… I request you too, to spread the message via your Kaun Banega Crorepati programme.

Anant Goenka: At a time such as this, when doctors such as yourself are putting your lives at risk, how does one keep one’s morale up?

Harsh Vardhan: We are very lucky that to keep our morale up, inspire us consistently, we have such a big and ideal leader as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since the first day, he has been there for us, not just for us but for the entire country, with his various messages, meetings at several levels, the planning… Initially doctors had to face such stigma, insults when they went home, doctors were attacked when they went for testing… the Prime Minister not just raised their morale but also had the foresight of making the 1899 Indian Epidemics Act so stringent that anyone misbehaving with a corona warrior knew they would have to face strict punishment. I believe that this commitment shown by our Covid warriors, their dedication about helping others, the satisfaction they feel when a patient gets better and goes home… it is due to them that India’s fatality rate, at 1.46, is among the lowest in the world. The doctors have played a big role in this, and the constant inspiration provided by Pradhan Mantriji is our real taakat (strength)… As for us doctors, the satisfaction we derive from how countrymen have respected us, I can’t describe it in words.

Amitabh Bachchan: The whole country is grateful to its doctors and health workers, the Covid warriors. Is the government planning to do something for them? And how can we as the public contribute?

Harsh Vardhan: The government is doing all it can, and will continue to do so. I think even people have contributed to the best of their ability. I am constantly reminded of Modiji’s innovative call of Janata Curfew on March 22, how people observed it voluntarily and then, at 5 pm, turned out to honour the corona warriors, the doctors, nurses, paramedics, in their own way… I remember the video of a very old woman, a labourer, beating bricks with a thin stick as her way of saluting them. The Prime Minister has led from the front in encouraging Covid warriors, honouring them, telling people to do the same… As a government, we have launched so many schemes for Covid warriors. They have been provided insurance of Rs 50 lakh in case of an unfortunate death… There have been at least 400-500 such martyrs whose deaths will always pain us, and the insurance claims of many have been settled. Recently we started a scheme to set aside five MBBS seats for wards of Covid warriors in medical colleges.

What can people do….? I think what they can do best is give Covid warriors the respect they deserve, to the best of their ability in their own spheres, whether it is government or non-government. Schemes can be started for Covid warriors, for their wards, particularly their mothers and families. So many mothers have lost their children in these 10 months to the Covid fight. The Covid warriors are tired, but they never say it. And in this country of 135 crore, I don’t know a single case of a mother, a brother, a sister telling a Covid warrior that it’s enough, don’t report at a Covid ward any more… And when I talk of Covid warriors, it is not just health workers, it is all frontline workers, including journalists, who are on the ground, creating awareness… some of them have died. Throughout history, the contribution of these Covid warriors will continue to inspire. The whole country is aware of their contribution.

(TV news partner ABP News will telecast the special show today at 10.30 pm)