2 min read.Updated: 20 Dec 2020, 09:45 PM ISTLivemint
As India prepares to roll out vaccines, we must tackle the potential problem of jab resistance. The Centre should allay anxieties and consider bearing the indemnity cost of the exercise
In the year since the novel coronavirus first emerged in China, it has infected about 76 million and killed over 1.6 million across the globe. India’s official count of covid cases crossed 10 million last week, with over 145,000 lives lost to it. By government data, our trend of daily new infections hit a high in mid-September and has been on a slide after that. Yet, letting covid burn itself out was never an option, even if large urban clusters were found to be acquiring antibodies through social exposure. Vaccines have therefore been in the spotlight. At least two, one by Pfizer-BioNTech and the other by Moderna, have got approval for emergency use in the US. Reports suggest that a similar go-ahead for Pfizer’s jab could be held up in India for a few months by our regulator’s likely insistence on trial data of its safety and efficacy among resident Indians. With many of us having grown weary of the pandemic’s strictures, such a delay would be met with groans of dismay. But while the urgency to liberate ourselves from this scourge is obvious, snuffing it out requires us to work on all fronts. And to minimize the likelihood of vaccine resistance, we need high public confidence in the jabs on their way.
We must not underestimate the role played by transparency of clinical trials. As of now, Pfizer does not have enough results for trial participants of Indian ethnicity. Only 4.3% of the 37,000 adults in its global phase-III clinical trial were from Asian ethnic groups, as reported, and its vaccine was found to be less effective among them. India’s genetic diversity is so vast that some experts reckon all vaccines should be tested across a cross-section of the country’s population, especially for safety. Of the six vaccines currently under trial in India, most attention has focused on Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, a government-sponsored project, and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield, which is being tested by Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII). The sooner we know the outcomes of local trials, the better. Doubts should not turn into popular anxieties.
Arguably, doubts have already done damage. In July, Covaxin took a credibility hit after the leak of an official document suggesting it would be hurried out prematurely. Pfizer’s shots are reported to have caused a few allergic reactions. And SII’s aggressive legal action last month against a trial volunteer who claimed to have suffered a severe side-effect was widely seen as a glare-down tactic. Willy nilly, posts on “adverse events" have suffused social media. If these stirred up vaccine hesitancy among some, then recent calls to indemnify vaccine makers against liability for side-effects have stoked that scepticism. As we prepare to roll out a mass vaccination exercise, the risk of any rise in anti-vaxxer sentiment needs to be quelled. The challenge is one of conviction. Trial data should be publicized within the context of credible opinion on the probability and tolerability of side-effects. No vaccine can guarantee none, but few of us are equipped to judge how sharply the risk-return equation is loaded in our favour. For an outreach campaign, the Centre must carry out a survey of attitudes, and then allay fears by using valid slice-of-life analogies that are easy to grasp. To tackle the let-others-take-it syndrome, it should also highlight the common good that jabs serve. As for indemnity, it would work best for the government to pick up the tab for any lawsuits that may arise. If it can backstop bank loans, it could use the same principle for jabs.