By Avinash Prabhakar
New Delhi, Oct 21 | “The worst is not over yet. We have created a safety net of 100 cr vaccinations but those who have not been vaccinated yet should come forward to get the vaccine to complete this safety net”, said V.K. Paul, Member (Health), NITI Aayog, in an exclusive interview with IANS. He said that talks with WHO for Covaxin EUL approval are in the final stage.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: India has achieved 100 crore vaccinations. Can we say the worst is over now?
A: This achievement is a momentous landmark for the country. But the worst is not over yet. We have created a safety net of 100 cr vaccines around us, but those who have not been vaccinated yet should come ahead to get vaccinated and complete this safety net.
Not many in the world would have thought India could administer vaccines to a billion people in 9 months. And, that too with two vaccines made on the soil of India. It is a grand example of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. Apart from providing protection against the deadly disease, this success has given us confidence that we can handle a crisis of this magnitude on our own. Going forward, I am optimistic, that not only can we change the course of the pandemic globally, but also revolutionise the research and development to address other diseases effectively.
Q: How has been India’s journey to achieve this milestone?
A: To reach here, the country overcame people’s apprehensions about safety and usefulness of the vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy due to ignorance, bias, misleading propaganda has been largely overcome. Challenges of vaccine supply, transportation, cold chain dynamics and vaccine centre logistics were met building on the invaluable experience of the universal immunization program. Communication efforts were directed to educate, assure, motivate and prepare the public through transparent, science-driven, consistent and multi-pronged messaging. CoWin IT platform emerged as the master enabler for beneficiary interface, session planning, certification and data management.
Our scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, industry leaders have all contributed to this effort. They have been fighting social and geographical odds at various levels to bring people to the vaccination centres. The 100 crore mark demonstrates the reach and resilience of our public health system.
Q: What did the government do to facilitate, support and encourage research and development of the vaccines?
A: For a nation that is admired as the ‘pharmacy of the world’ and that delivers two-thirds of all the world’s vaccines for children, to pick up the challenge to develop/manufacture COVID-19 vaccines was a given. Prime Minister guided and mentored this journey from the very start.
The government established a task force as early as in April 2020 to oversee, support, encourage and monitor R&D initiatives amongst the research organizations and in the industry. Potential candidate vaccines were tracked and supported with research and development grants. Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) opened their laboratories for complex assays by research groups and industry. ICMR provided the vaccine virus strain to the industry to develop Covaxin. DBT readied eighteen vaccine trial field sites that were used by industry for trials. Government launched a 900 Cr Mission COVID Suraksha to fund multi-level R&D efforts.
At least eight entities have received large grants. Government also made outright advance purchase commitment for a vaccine still under development. National Expert Group on Vaccine Implementation (NEGVAC) provided guidelines on the vaccine program. Government teams have been in touch with manufacturers on a continuous basis, Regulatory steps were streamlined and all facilitation was ensured.
Today, made-in-India Covishield (serum) and Covaxin (Bharat) have been the bedrock of our program so far. But our industry has lined up four other vaccines for potential use in the coming months: a DNA vaccine (Zydus, already licenced), a mRNA vaccine (Gennova), a protein sub-unit vaccine (BioE) and an intranasal vector vaccine (Bharat).
Q: What are India’s concerns at this stage?
A: The country is at a critical juncture right now. We have to accomplish a high vaccine coverage with the full 2-dose course. We need to remain vigilant and keep looking for new virus variants. Occurrence of the variants of concern is unpredictable. A dangerous new variant in any part of the world is a threat to all; and that is the real worry. It is the biggest unknown over which we have little control except to reduce transmission by all means. Our surveillance teams have to keep track of new variants, and our vaccine scientists and industry have to be ready to tweak the vaccines if required. In addition, the search for an effective drug that averts progression of early infection into serious disease is an urgent need. This virus can only be defeated by scientific tools and products.
Q: What is causing delay in granting WHO emergency use approval to Covaxin?
A: Talks with the World Health Organization are in the final stage now to grant EUL to Covaxin. We respect the WHO procedure which is totally science and evidence based in granting the approval to vaccines. The final meetings are scheduled and we hope to get good news soon from WHO.
(Avinash Prabhakar can be reached at email@example.com)