Updated: December 24, 2021 8:52:47 am
Amid a surge in infections caused by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the WHO has made a significant revision to its position on booster doses of the Covid vaccine. On Wednesday, it recommended an additional jab for “the most vulnerable and high-risk groups in a population, along with frontline workers”. While the global health agency has never denied outright the necessity of extending the two-shot protocol followed by the Covid inoculation programmes of most countries, it has rightly criticised the blanket booster drives in several western nations for exacerbating the vaccine crisis in parts of the Third World. The agency has, at times, advocated additional shots for “priority groups”, without specifying who should be prioritised. Wednesday’s statement is the WHO’s first advisory on additional doses. The guidelines are particularly significant for India, which has followed the global healthcare agency’s recommendations closely and should set the stage for the country to expand its inoculation drive.
Conversations among experts in the country on booster doses began at almost the same time as in the West. However, even till as late as the first week of this month, the National Technical Advisory Group of Immunisation (NTGI) was talking of a wait-and-watch approach. The high transmissibility rate of the Omicron variant and the latest study by the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (SAGE) that warns of waning immunity from vaccines should be reasons enough for the NTGI to show greater urgency. The agency’s work is complicated because there is no unanimity on whether Covishield, which has driven the bulk of the country’s inoculation drive, is the best immunity top up for those who have received two doses of the vaccine. There is reason, however, for optimism. WHO has given an Emergency Use Approval to the Serum Institute of India manufactured Covavax and at least two homegrown vaccines are in different phases of clinical trials. The NTGI’s task now is to establish which of the jabs work the best as a booster.
The government must also work out the economics of the booster doses with the vaccine manufacturers. Last year, the two parties were not always on the same page on pricing and production issues, leading to supply snags. Care should be taken at the outset to avoid such bottlenecks. Omicron is another sign that the virus is a moving target. However, we are also better positioned to shield people rather than resort to blunt instruments like lockdowns. It’s up to the government and its expert bodies to show both wisdom and alacrity.
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