Updated: May 21, 2021 6:46:32 pm
Written by G Kishan Reddy
On January 5, the the BBC published an article titled “Covaxin: What was the rush to approve India’s homegrown vaccine?” This was just after the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) had approved Covaxin and Covishield through a restricted Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) against COVID-19 on January 3.
The DCGI approval was based on the recommendation of the Subject Expert Committee of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO).
The article went on to quote a prominent Member of Parliament from the opposition and a minister in the erstwhile UPA government who stated that the approval for Covaxin was given due to “the chest-thumping ‘vaccine nationalism’ — combined with the PM’s ‘self-reliant India campaigning’, [that] trumped common sense and a generation of established scientific protocols.”
In fact, the EUA decision was a sound one, based on an expert committee that consisted of domain experts from various fields that included immunology, microbiology, pulmonology, pharmacology, internal medicine, and paediatrics. This was corroborated by the Indian Council of Medical Research that found an extremely low occurrence (below 0.05 per cent) of Covid-19 among those vaccinated.
However, the concerted campaign against vaccine approvals to arrest our progress is quite apparent in hindsight. There have been numerous instances of politicians, policy-makers, and even some media personnel creating an environment of doubt and mistrust. An ex-chief minister of a large state called the vaccines “BJP vaccines”, while some states blocked outright the usage of a vaccine candidate for the citizens of their state.
Despite all this, the Government of India now stands in a position to vaccinate every willing adult citizen by the end of 2021. This is not just an aspirational target but a sacred responsibility set by the Prime Minister. Today, as the government works with all the stakeholders to ramp up the availability of vaccine doses and also increase the mix of vaccine candidates, it may be worth looking at our journey so far.
Contrary to reports that India had ordered vaccines very late, India’s vaccination strategy has been extremely proactive. In April 2020, the Task Force to provide guidance on research and development of the vaccine and other regulatory issues was constituted.
In August 2020, to further institutionalise this, the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration was constituted with the Member (Health) at NITI Aayog and Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, as chair and co-chair, respectively. The expert group included representation from central ministries and states to provide guidance on the prioritisation of population groups for vaccination, procurement and inventory management, vaccine selection, and vaccine delivery and tracking mechanisms.
By September 2020, the CDSCO granted test licence permission for the manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines for preclinical test, examination, and analysis to seven vaccine manufacturers that included Serum Institute of India, Bharat Biotech, Cadila Healthcare, and Biological E.
I mention these four companies as their vaccines are either part of the EUA or are in advanced clinical trials. In November 2020, the Prime Minister made a three-city tour to Pune, Hyderabad, and Ahmedabad where he visited the Serum Institute of India, Bharat Biotech, and Zydus Biotech Park, respectively. The aim of the visit was to review the progress of the various vaccine candidates and to get a first-hand perspective.
Some policy analysts have stated that we should have signed commercial contracts and made payments even before EUA was granted on January 3. On the face of it, this sounds like valid criticism and future procurements, especially in such emergency situations, need to take this into account.
However, here as well, it is worth looking at the government perspective. Had the government made payments to vaccine manufacturers to secure supply even before EUA was granted, what would the allegations have been? If EUA was not granted due to failure in clinical trials, there would have been allegations of unethical enrichment, crony capitalism, and wastage of public money.
If payments were made before acquiring EUA and a fair authorisation process had granted approvals, the sanctity of the approval process would have still been questioned, hinting that the approvals were granted as the government had already invested in the vaccines.
Today, we stand at the cusp of accelerating our vaccination programme manifold. We have already vaccinated 18 crore people with at least one dose. Between May and July, the Government of India will receive more than 35 crore vaccine doses. This includes 17.5 crore doses procured by the Government of India and the remaining available to the states directly and to private hospitals. A further 225 crore doses will be available between August and December 2021.
This will pave the way for India to achieve vaccination of every willing citizen by the end of 2021. As the vaccine programme ramps up and supply becomes more predictable, our focus will be to address the issues around vaccine hesitancy to ensure we achieve the target of universal vaccination.
The writer is the Minister of State for Home Affairs and represents the Secunderabad Lok Sabha Constituency
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