Due process is not partisan politics

There are issues for which there is space for debate and there are issues on which we need to build an informed consensus. Vaccines is one area where the need for consensus is high as vaccine hesitancy is a culture that has been perpetuated by a few influential sections of our society.

Vital facts

In this context, on January 5, The Hindu carried two op-ed articles on the challenges in approving COVID-19 vaccines. The Science Editor, R. Prasad, in his article “Hasty approval, no transparency”, pointed out how India had squandered an opportunity to build trust in vaccines by rushing to vaccinate the population. Anup Agarwal, a physician from New Mexico, in his article “Care is the standard of a vaccine trial”, spoke about the importance of due process in clinical trials and emphasised how we cannot have vaccines at the cost of the safety of study participants. The editorial, “A hurried gamble” (Jan. 4), argued that lack of transparency in communication is not only undesirable but also dangerous. These opinion pieces are backed by exhaustive reports on vaccine research for COVID-19, India’s roll-out plans and the approval process. However, some readers saw these critical articles through a partisan lens or nationalistic lens. Public health and interventions to ensure larger public good should not be read through a reductionist lens. Partisan political debates on vaccines will harm vulnerable sections of our society, including front-line health workers.

It is true that there are many sides to various sociopolitical developments, and journalism must strive to document and bring home all the diverse viewpoints on such issues. But there are certain issues on which there cannot be alternative opinions. It is important that journalism does not tie itself in knots in matters where it fails to make a crucial distinction between false balance and truth. We can trace the current crisis facing many of our democratic institutions to a decade-long normalisation of illogical and harmful tendencies in the name of balance. Media scholars have systematically documented the perils of this false equivalence.

V. Kurup, a reader, wrote: “There is a compelling reason for squeezing the approval process as we cannot afford to have a second lockdown like Europe. Evaluation of any vaccine will take years if we want to satisfy the arguments of these experts. We have entrusted the task to an expert group and they are giving their approval after weighing the pros and cons of fast-tracking the evaluation process and the experience of other nations. It is not fair to cast aspersions on their decisions. Mr. Prasad’s statement that India has ‘squandered an opportunity to build trust in vaccines’ is not logical.”

Questions in public interest

The key question is not about quick roll-out of vaccines but finding an effective vaccine with proven efficacy to contain the pandemic. Everyone agrees that we cannot afford a second lockdown. There are many disturbing questions about the roll-out plan announced by the Government of India. The regulatory authority for medical products, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), on January 2, gave “restricted emergency approval” to two vaccines — Covishield, manufactured by Serum Institute of India with technology transfer from Oxford University-AstraZeneca, and Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology.

Covishield has been approved without waiting for the results of the ongoing Phase-III trials that are taking place in India. Many health experts feel that the approval for this vaccine, based on the Phase-III trials in the U.K. and Brazil, without establishing bioequivalence in India, may be permitted for emergency use. But they are worried about the short-circuiting of the process for Covaxin. Experts point out that the CDSCO’s statement clearly indicates that approval was granted based on Phase-I and Phase-II data on safety and immune response, but without any efficacy data from Phase-III trials.

Newspapers, which are mandated to articulate public good, should raise questions about due process and due diligence when it comes to providing vaccines to control a pandemic that has taken a massive toll on lives and livelihoods everywhere. Not doing so would amount to dereliction of duty.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 1:03:11 AM |

Next Story