Why was Covovax given a pass?

Karan Thapar

The government’s choice of vaccines for the third jab raises questions that urgently call for an answer or, at least, a fuller explanation. So far, however, the silence from either the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation in India (NTAGI) or the Covid-19 Working Group suggests we are not going to be given one. So let me raise those questions in the hope it might provoke someone to respond. After all, as citizens of India, this is our right.

The government has decided to go with third jabs of the vaccines we’ve already been given ignoring two critical facts – there are no studies at all that assess the efficacy of a third jab of Covaxin, and so there’s no basis for making this choice, and, second, there is one very credible study by Southampton University, peer reviewed by The Lancet, which says a Covovax third jab after two of AstraZeneca/Covishield will produce nearly three times more antibodies than a third jab of AstraZeneca/Covishield. In fact – and this is a point made by the study – half a Covovax is better than a full AstraZeneca/Covishield.

Now, Covovax known abroad as Novovax, has already been cleared by the World Health Organization and the European Union. Second, according to multiple newspaper reports, there is no shortage of Covovax. It’s made by the Serum Institute who, as far back as June, said they could have 200 million doses available by December 2021. More importantly, they’ve already begun exporting. 50 million have been sent to Indonesia and the Philippines. More recently 70 million to the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. We need 130 million to cover all health workers, frontline workers and people over 60 with comorbidities but not necessarily at one go. I don’t believe supply will be a problem. Which reinforces the question – why was Covovax not chosen?

Finally, if mRNA vaccines are the best third jabs – as the world believes – why are we denying them to our citizens? Pakistan and Bangladesh are both giving Pfizer. Nepal too, I think. They have no problem with the immunity clause and after billions of Pfizer jabs have been given world-wide surely this is now only a matter of detail or false national pride. More importantly is it good grounds for denying the best third jab to Indian citizens?

These are questions that not only need to be answered but if they remain hanging in the air they could soon become disturbing and distressing. I can’t believe the government doesn’t realize that. So, again, why is it silent?

My hunch is these are issues on which members of NTAGI and the Covid-19 Working Group have differences. In the interviews they’ve earlier given they’ve spoken in different voices and come to contrasting conclusions. Now, after the announcement on Wednesday evening, interviews that had been repeatedly promised were inexplicably cancelled. Isn’t it odd that just when we need explanations those who can provide them no longer want to talk?

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