Updated: December 11, 2021 4:45:59 am
In its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, it is essential that India step up efforts to vaccinate the nearly 15 per cent of its adult population, which was still unvaccinated, as well as prioritise administering the second dose of the vaccine to those inoculated with only the first dose, according to an expert.
Speaking at a discussion on SARS CoV 2 Omicron variant on Friday, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, Gautam Menon, also said, “Booster shots may be necessary, at least initially, for front-line and healthcare workers, those above 60 years of age and those who are immunocompromised, but others can wait for them.”
He, however, said more information was needed “about the use of the currently available Indian vaccines as boosters, and also about how the two vaccines most used in India — Covaxin and Covishield — might perform against the Omicron variant.”
Sharing his insights on the new variant, Prof Menon said, “The news of emergence of the new Omicron variant from South Africa is worrying. While we will know more in the coming weeks, what we know so far is that this variant spreads more efficiently and can evade immunity even from an earlier infection of Covid-19 and vaccination. There are some positive indications such as the severity of the illness being possibly less than that caused by Delta variant, but this requires confirmation.”
Another expert who addressed the event, Dr Shahid Jameel, director of Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University, said, “Early lab results from South Africa and Pfizer show about a 40-fold and 25-fold drop in virus neutralisation ability of Pfizer vaccine. According to various studies, booster shots have been shown to increase the amount of antibodies and cut reinfection rates. Given these results, it is now time that India devises policies on booster shots and vaccination for children.”
Dr Jameel had earlier told The Indian Express, “I am of the view that a third dose of AstraZeneca (marketed as Covishield in India) would not be as effective. Another vaccine should be used as a booster in people vaccinated with two doses of Covishield. Novovax made by Serum Institute (called Covovax) and Biological E’s Corbevax would be both effective and inexpensive. SII also has the capacity to make over 1.5 billion doses of Covovax.”
Prof Menon also told The Indian Express that best results are obtained with “boosters that are different from the vaccines you get originally.”
At the discussion, both Dr Jameel and Prof Menon said they expected Covid-19 cases in India to rise by early next year as this has been the experience even in other countries with high levels of vaccination, such as Israel and the UK. They also added a note of caution, saying as more data becomes available, “some of the information that we know as of now could be wrong”.
Both experts emphasised that the best strategies to reduce the spread of Covid-19 are mask-wearing, proper ventilation, physical distancing and stepping up vaccination, and the responsibility for these rests as much with the individual as with the government.
Dr Jameel also raised the issue of vaccine inequity, and how it had led to emergence of the Omicron variant. “There are reports from the UK where AstraZeneca vaccine doses have been destroyed as they were close to expiry… on the other hand, there are countries where vaccine doses have not been administered due to inadequate supply. The new variant has come due to vaccine inequity and how vaccines have rolled out. This is the kind of inequity we should fight against,” said Dr Jameel.
He also made a strong case for reducing the gap between two Covishield doses from 16 to 12 weeks to increase the rate of vaccination.
Dr Jameel called for a policy decision on vaccination for children and booster doses, apart from getting states to ensure hospital preparedness as there is a possibility of rise in cases and a certain percentage of patients being hospitalised.
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