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Covid-19 is a public health problem caused by a virus. Let us address it with science, not politics

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is made under two trade names — Vaxzevria and Covishield. It is the same product made at different locations. Why then are people vaccinated in India with two doses of Covishield not considered at par with those who received the same vaccine elsewhere?

Written by Shahid Jameel |
September 24, 2021 7:50:06 pm
A beneficiary getting vaccinated. (Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)

I travelled to the United Kingdom recently to take up a position at Oxford. While in India, I received two doses of Covishield, the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine made under licence by the Serum Institute of India. Still, the UK government rules for an ‘amber’ country required me to isolate at home for 10 days on arrival.

During this period, I had to take two RT-PCR tests on the second and eighth days after arrival. These tests had to be booked online before I left India, and cost me about GBP 200 (Rs 20,000). An additional test on the fifth day after arrival would have cost more, but would have allowed an early end to my isolation.

As a keen follower of the ongoing pandemic, I was aware of how well Public Health England has manged it in the UK. I have also learned much from their detailed and periodic science- and evidence-based reports. All travel information and requirements on the UK government sites were absolutely clear. But the scenes I witnessed at Heathrow airport were scandalous to say the least.

Though the mandatory signs for a 2-metre physical separation were there, about 800 people crowded the Immigration Hall. It took me five hours to clear immigration. Everyone travelling to the UK these days fills out a Passenger Locator Form up to 48 hours in advance of travel, so it’s a no-brainer to align capacity to the load. Just five immigration windows were open leading to delays. Someone clearly overlooked this and put everyone in that room at risk.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is made under two trade names — Vaxzevria and Covishield. It is the same product made at different locations. Covishield is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and is the main vaccine in India’s vaccination drive. Of about 837 million doses delivered in India at the time of writing this, Covishield has contributed to about 737 million (or 88 per cent) doses.

About 5 million doses of Covishield have also been used to vaccinate people in the UK and millions of more doses have been donated or sold to other countries and to COVAX, an international partnership that facilitates Covid-19 vaccine access to low- and middle-income countries.

Why then are people vaccinated in India with two doses of Covishield not considered at par with those who received the same vaccine elsewhere?

How is Vaxzevria superior to Covishield?

Vaccine effectiveness studies carried out by Public Health England and independent researchers in the UK and India show similar levels of protection from symptomatic infection, severe disease and mortality for the two products.

Clearly, there must be another reason.

Indian media reports quote the UK government as saying that “it doesn’t think India’s vaccine certification meets their minimum criteria needed for approval”.

While it may be possible that a very small fraction of the 800-plus million doses given in India may be based on erroneous certificates, who would believe that a country that is a major global supplier of childhood vaccines, has a robust universal immunization programme and has used massive vaccination drives over years to eliminate polio, would be running such a racket?

Policy is not made for exceptional situations, and that is why this policy is wrong. To quote a friend who retired from the highest rank in the Indian Administrative Service, “to imply that something is wrong with the certificate per se without pointing out the defect is unbelievably stupid”.

There were other ways to address this. Just as it requires a health check-up for students and workers seeking a visa, the UK government could have partnered with designated vaccination sites in Indian cities. The certification matter appears to be an afterthought.

On one of the primetime TV debates I was on this week, a panelist suggested that in retaliation, India should ask travellers from the UK to isolate for 21 days. You cannot tackle ridiculous situations by being even more ridiculous. You sort them out based on evidence and through quiet diplomacy.

Enough energy has already been given to this matter. Unfortunately, most of it is heat with very little light.

Covid-19 is a public health problem caused by a virus. Let us address it with science not politics.

Shahid Jameel is one of India’s most eminent virologists, and a Fellow at the University of Oxford. India has taken up the issue strongly with the UK, but there has been no substantive change in British policy.

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