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NEW DELHI : The government on Thursday widened the gap between two doses of Serum Institute of India’s Covidshield vaccine to 12-16 weeks from four to eight, amid a crippling shortage of vaccines. The expert panel that recommended the move said a longer interval between doses will offer better protection to those vaccinated.

The shortage of vaccines has prompted some states to temporarily halt inoculations for the 18-44 age group, while some others are trying to procure vaccines directly from overseas manufacturers.

The government, however, unveiled a vaccine supply road map on Thursday, claiming at least 2 billion vaccine doses are likely to be available between August and December this year, enough to administer second doses to all adults in the country.

With limited vaccine availability and soaring infections, the expert panel chose to cover a wider section of India’s population rather than providing booster doses to a smaller slice. While the wider spacing isn’t what AstraZeneca, the Covishield vaccine’s developer, officially recommends, the government’s move appears to be a calculated one to save more lives, similar to what the UK government has tried, with a degree of success.

The expert panel, however, denied that its decision was driven by the current shortage.

“We have not increased the dosing interval because there was a shortage of doses. What would be the point to it? Instead of giving it a month from the first dose, the second dose will have to be given three months later, but it will still have to be given," said Dr N.K. Arora, chair, covid sub-committee of National Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (NTAGI).

Senior health ministry officials said NTAGI reviewed real-world data from the UK, which showed greater protection with the original vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, if the interval was three months or more. “The UK in December decided to give an interval of three months based on trial data, which some people believed and some people cast doubts about. We decided to wait. In the last week of April, there were three publications from real-world data from the UK’s programme, which showed that if the interval between doses is increased to 12-16 weeks, the vaccine efficacy is 65-88%. There is data from the whole of the UK, from Bristol and from Scotland," Arora said in an interview.

The Centre indicated the current supply crunch will ease, starting August, as local manufacturers expand capacity and the country imports more vaccines. “In the five months between August and December, over 2 billion doses of vaccine will be made in India for Indians. There should be no doubt that vaccines will be available for all as we move forward," V.K. Paul, member, NITI Aayog, said on Thursday, adding that the number will be further boosted by vaccines that could be imported from foreign companies, including those produced by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson.

Paul said from next week, Russia’s Sputnik V will be made available by local partner Dr Reddy’s Laboratories following the supply of 150,000 doses on 1 May. Dr Reddy’s is expected to procure more doses later this month. Apart from the expected 2.16 billion doses between August and December, India is also expected to get over 320 million doses of Serum Institute of India’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin till July, of which over 160 million will be supplied to the Centre and then redistributed to states. The remaining is expected to be procured directly by the states and private hospitals. Of the 320 million, over 73 million will be procured and administered in May, of which over half has already been procured so far.

Significantly, a good part of the government’s vaccine maths depends on the successful completion of clinical trials and regulatory authorization for five vaccines—Biological E’s protein subunit vaccine, Zydus Cadila’s ZyCoV-D, Serum Institute’s Covovax, Bharat Biotech’s intranasal vaccine, and Gennova Biopharmaceutical’s messenger RNA vaccine.

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