Seven out of 10 adults have received two shots of the Covid-19 vaccine. Even though this falls short of the government’s target of inoculating all adult citizens by the end of 2021, close to 160 crore shots being administered in a year, without the rural-urban divide significantly holding back distribution, is no mean achievement. The country’s scientific, regulatory, and administrative agencies under the Centre and the states, as well as the numerous vaccinators and healthcare workers in the frontlines of the battle against the unpredictable contagion, have impressively stepped up to the challenge. The imperative to protect lives and livelihoods demanded that every agency works on compressed timelines without compromising the safety and efficacy of the shots. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. The task of double jabbing nearly 100 crore adults in a year necessitated building capacities of vaccine manufacturers and surmounting the well-known deficiencies of the country’s public health system — both remain works in progress. The coordination mechanisms between the Centre and states came apart during the second wave and, for nearly two months, the states were left to fend for themselves to secure vaccine supplies. It required a course correction in June last year, on the Supreme Court’s prodding, for the vaccination drive to gather momentum again.
The task that lies ahead is to ensure speedy improvement in vaccine coverage in states that have made slow progress — Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, UP and Bihar. It’s a matter of concern that three of these states — UP, Punjab and Manipur — will be going to polls next month. As reported by this paper, an analysis by an expert panel of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare flagged the “high vulnerability” of districts in these states “to the emerging Covid pandemic due to the Omicron variant”. The Centre and state governments must give utmost priority to the committee’s recommendation of scaling up vaccination in these high-risk areas. Predictions by epidemiologists that the Omicron-driven surge will reach its peak in large parts of the country, including in the poll-bound states, in the next four to six weeks should push the authorities to quicken their efforts. Though the highly transmissible variant does cause breakthrough infections, evidence from the current surge shows that double vaccination protects people against a severe form of the disease. Therefore, even as the country rightly intensifies its search for a stronger shield against the virus, no time must be lost in completing the primary inoculation drive.
Reports of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) studying “data on mixing jabs” have raised hopes of more effective shots being added to the country’s vaccine basket. Such studies should be the first step towards expanding the ambit of the precautionary inoculation drive — currently, only frontline workers, healthcare professionals and people over 60 are eligible for the third dose. The NTAGI is also studying the possibility of inoculating children under 15. Efforts in laboratories and conversations amongst regulatory agencies must urgently translate into making the vaccination drive more expansive. The virus caught the country unprepared last year. No effort should be spared to blunt the scourge this year.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on January 18, 2022 under the title ‘Year of the jab’.