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Vaccines, boosters and some hard talk

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

January 01, 2022 12:02 am | Updated January 02, 2022 07:29 am IST

Medical icon. Vial with vaccine and medicine. Prescription or license. Injection.

Medical icon. Vial with vaccine and medicine. Prescription or license. Injection.

I wish it were otherwise but we are starting the new year with vaccines and boosters at the top of everyone’s mind. So I hope you will 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 is what I want to do today.

Issue of the certificate

First, a blunder that has 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 it initially limit them to people over 60 who can provide comorbidity certificates from a doctor? It was inexplicable and contradictory but also illogical. Let us 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, it dropped the requirement.

Now, all you need is a doctor’s advice. How will the Government know you have 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 those over 60 years when jabs were first given. Why were they suddenly introduced at this stage? I doubt we will ever be told but it is a question that calls for an answer.

The elderly are a priority in every country — that was also true of India when the 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 is needed is to prevent the elderly falling sick.

Covaxin’s clearance

This seems to have finally dawned on it but how is it that the Government did not realise it earlier? Someone somewhere did not think this through. Even though the error has been corrected it does not leave me with confidence in the Government’s strategy.

The other issue I want to raise is different. It is an unwarranted allegation made by the Chief Justice of India. He has 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 World Health Organization (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”.

Professor 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 would not 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 January 5, 2021 (https://bit.ly/32wbRQU).

The Chief Justice of India did not 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 was not “defaming Covaxin” but she was certainly — and rightly — drawing attention to its improper authorisation.

However, the Chief Justice of India 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 of India say that but I would like to believe he knows he has erred and repents. I’ll say no more.

Oh well, if I have not upset or depressed you, Happy New Year.

Karan Thapar is a television anchor

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