VACCINE ROLLOUT: THE ULTIMATE CURE?
Updated: Mar 4
[This article is authored by Ms Vanshika Shroff*]
The Government of India’s decision to initiate the vaccination drive on the 16th of January signified that the fight against COVID might be in its “Final Stages”. Having commenced the largest vaccine drive the world will ever witness, the authorities are faced with the onerous task of vaccinating 30 Crore Indians in the first place, which is roughly equivalent to the population of the United States, the worst-hit country by the pandemic. India has approved two ‘Made in India’ vaccines against the novel coronavirus — Covishield, developed by Oxford University in collaboration with Astra Zeneca and manufactured by Pune based Serum Institute of India and Covaxin developed by Bharat Biotech, while two more viz, Covax and Sputnik-V are believed to be in the pipeline, awaiting regulatory approvals. Though the authorities have vaccinated more than 1 Crore beneficiaries within a month of kicking-off the drive, at a much faster rate than the likes of United States, United Kingdom, Israel etc., they need to step up their pace considering the new variants of the strain coupled with the humongous target of 30 Crore in the next couple of months.
While the daily rate of vaccination is relatively lower than the government’s target, the authorities entrusted with the job of vaccinating beneficiaries cannot be blamed for the figures, which have other dimensions to it. One of the main reasons because of which the rate of vaccination has been slow is Vaccine Hesitancy. Reservations regarding the safety and efficacy of the vaccines coupled with other myths and misconceptions have significantly contributed to an atmosphere discouraging vaccination on a large scale. The hesitancy against both the vaccines has persisted despite the government’s efforts to bolster people’s confidence around it, by way of dialogues with the nation’s top medical practitioners coupled with repeated assurance from the Health Ministry that the vaccines are safe. With 6 out of 9 deaths coming within a few hours of being inoculated, followed by three more deaths within five days the unease around the vaccines have only increased, in absence of the cause of these deaths. Though, the government has claimed that the deaths were not due to the vaccine but has not revealed the details of the investigation which has made people in considerable numbers ask the same question, “Is the vaccine really safe?”
Ordinarily after a death has occurred, the vaccine should be tried and tested again till it is safe, a pattern which has been followed by the authorities during the UK trials. On 9th September, 2020 the trials were halted in the UK when the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine development team reported an adverse event. In India, the vaccine’s manufacturer and trial partner, Serum Institute of India (‘SII’), received a notice from the national drug authority for not notifying this adverse event, which was followed by a brief pause of the trials by the SII, until both the UK and Indian drugs authorities were satisfied with the safety studies. However, this was not the case for Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech, wherein the trial was not halted even after the death of a trial participant. Though, the manufacturers later clarified that that the death had not occurred due to the administration of vaccine, a delayed response to the rising concerns seems to have affected the credibility of Covaxin.
Besides the lack of trial data concerning the vaccines, the adverse events following the inoculation (‘AEFIs’) have got vaccine beneficiaries worried about the safety of the jabs. Furthermore, reports based on various researches show that many people are apprehensive about taking the vaccine because of the emerging side-effects. However, these side-effects are normal as they indicate the body’s rising immunity against the virus. Therefore, symptoms such as body ache, swelling, chills, headache, fatigue, fever, etc. followed by the shot are normal, and something which should not act as deterrence from getting inoculated. As per the same study, the first dose creates a stronger reaction in COVID survivors as compared to those alien to the infection. However, the report clarified this was due to the antibody response in coronavirus infected patients after the first dose, which exceeded the body's antibody count as compared to those who never had the infection in the first place. This spike in the antibody count clearly explains why COVID survivors encounter severe side-effects after the first shot.
It is also believed that just because an antibody binds to a part of the virus does not mean a person will not be re-infected, owing to the dearth of research on mutant strains. This indicates that getting vaccinated might not be the ultimate solution, as an individual who has been vaccinated still has a fair chance of contracting the virus, although they are more likely to be asymptomatic. However, one still has to take the necessary precautions by maintaining social distancing and sanitation all the time as the vaccine is merely a tool to reduce the probability of getting infected and does not eliminate the possibility of contracting a mutant strain of the virus. However, it is still highly recommended to take the vaccine especially for senior citizens, people with low immunity, and other vulnerable groups as notified by the government.
Keeping the herculean task of vaccinating 30 Crore people in mind, the government should consider making the relevant trial reports and other related reports available to the public as a possible way to reduce vaccine hesitancy. Patient safety is of paramount importance at this point of time when the nation is entering into the final stages before normalcy sets in. While the government has taken a great initiative by starting the drive early to immunize the population at the earliest possible, reservations at a personal level and major doubts about the efficacy and the adverse effects of the vaccine, in the long run, have prevented them from being a part of the on-going drive. Considering the several health risks associated with the virus, the vaccine is currently our best shot to protect ourselves from the accelerating virus, while it may pave the way for an early state of normalcy within the country.
References:  Bibek Debroy, Aditya Sinha, There are challenges in Covid vaccination drive, but these are not intractable, The Indian Express (Feb 18, 2021, 08:44 PM), https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/covid-19-vaccination-drive-india-coronavirus-7145252/.  Meghna Sen, Sputnik V in India: Submit immunogenicity data, SEC tells Dr Reddy before nod for Russian vaccine, Mint (Feb 24, 2021, 08:23 PM), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/sputnik-v-covid-vaccine-in-india-come-back-with-immunogenicity-data-sec-on-dr-reddy-s-application-11614162614228.html.  The FT Desk, Speed up Covid-19 vaccination: Mutant Coronaviruses in Maharashtra already pose a threat, Financial Express (Feb 24, 2021, 09:10 PM), https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/speed-up-covid-19-vaccination-mutant-viruses-in-maharashtra-already-pose-a-threat/2198297/.  Prashasti Awasthi, Hesitancy to take Covid-19 vaccine reason for low turnout in India, Business Line (Feb 24, 2021, 09:30 PM), https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/covid-19-vaccine-hesitancy-responsible-for-low-turnout-in-india/article33615039.ece.  Sandhya Srinivasan et al., Nine health workers have died in vaccine rollout. India must disclose status of probe into each case, Scroll (Feb 24, 2021, 09:45 PM), https://scroll.in/article/985273/nine-health-workers-have-died-in-vaccine-rollout-india-must-disclose-status-of-probe-into-each-case.  News, Coronavirus: Oxford University vaccine trial paused after participant falls ill, BBC (Feb 24, 2021, 09:50 PM), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54082192.  J Jagganath, Death of volunteer who took dose of Covaxin ‘not related’ to vaccine or placebo, says Bharat Biotech, Livemint (Feb 26, 2021, 08:20 PM), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/death-of-volunteer-who-took-dose-of-covaxin-not-related-to-vaccine-or-placebo-says-bharat-biotech-11610198067111.html.  Manavi Kapur, Grave ethical allegations hound India’s homegrown Covid-19 vaccine as it prepares for rollout, Quartz India (Feb 22, 2021, 07:22 PM), https://qz.com/india/1955966/questions-over-indias-covaxin-side-effects-ethical-violations/.  Health News, COVID Survivors More Likely To Experience Vaccine Side Effects After First Shot: Study, Times of India (Feb 22, 2021, 06:36 PM), https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/health-fitness/health-news/coronavirus-vaccine-side-effects-covid-survivors-more-likely-to-experience-vaccine-side-effects-after-the-first-shot-study/photostory/80687136.cms.  Id.
~About the Author~
Ms Vanshika Shroff is a fourth year law student pursuing BLS LLB at Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Mumbai