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Vaccines, boosters and some hard talk

Karan Thapar

There are questions that need to be raised and allegations that must be countered about the vaccine strategy.

I wish it were otherwise but we’re starting the new year with vaccines and boosters at the top of everyone’s mind. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I write about these subjects. With boosters starting in a week’s time there are questions that need to be raised and allegations that must be countered. That’s what I want to do today.

First, a blunder that’s mercifully been corrected but the fact it was made raises the question how carefully did the government think through its announcement about boosters? After insisting on calling them precautionary, why did they initially limit them to people over 60 who can provide comorbidity certificates from a doctor? It was inexplicable and contradictory but also illogical. Let’s leave aside the fact, this being India, there would have been no dearth of false certificates. If the government had no way of checking, it would have had to accept every one. No doubt, this is why, three days later, they dropped the requirement.

Now, all you need is a doctor’s advice. How will the government know you’ve taken it? And how will it fathom what the advice was? This is, of course, a face-saver to wriggle out of the earlier stupidity but it still leaves the government with yolk all over its face.

The issue was simple before the government decided to complicate it. Comorbidities were not a condition for the over 60s when jabs were first given. Why were they suddenly introduced at this stage? I doubt we’ll ever be told but it’s a question that calls for an answer.

The elderly are a priority in every country – that was also true of India when first jabs were given – because age makes them vulnerable. The older you get the more prone you are to illness. So, if the doses are precautionary, the precaution that’s needed is to prevent the elderly falling sick.

This seems to have finally dawned but how come the government didn’t realize it earlier? Someone somewhere didn’t think this through. Even though the error has been corrected it doesn’t leave me with confidence in the government’s strategy.

The other issue I want to raise is different. It’s an unwarranted allegation made by the Chief Justice. He’s claimed: “Several multi-national companies, like Pfizer, on one hand, and scores of people from within India, on the other hand, made unfair attempts to defame Covaxin. They even complained to WHO and tried to stall recognition to this made-in-India vaccine.”

Pfizer can defend itself and I hope the WHO will issue a statement to clear the air but I want to step-in on the side of a lady widely considered India’s top vaccine scientist. It was to me in an interview last january that she expressed her reservations about Covaxin’s clearance in “clinical-trial mode”.

Prof. Gagandeep Kang said without efficacy data no vaccine should be cleared and Covaxin’s clearance, only on the basis of its Phase 1 and 2 results, was neither correct nor defensible. She also said she wouldn’t take Covaxin as a vaccine until its required efficacy data is made public. Actually, she had a lot more to say but you can find that out for yourself by watching the interview. It was done on 5th of January 2021 for The Wire.

The Chief Justice didn’t name her but Prof. Kang is by far the most prominent scientist to have raised concerns about Covaxin’s premature clearance. She had the courage to do so and what she said was scientifically indisputable. She wasn’t “defaming Covaxin” but she was certainly – and rightly – drawing attention to it’s improper authorisation.

However, the Chief Justice went perilously further. “All Telugu people must come forward to tell the world about the greatness of our Telugu company that made this vaccine.” It was embarrassing to hear a Chief Justice say that but I’d like to believe he knows he’s erred and repents. I’ll say no more.

Oh well, if I haven’t upset or depressed you, Happy New Year.

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