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India’s state-run covid vaccination drive was primarily aimed at pandemic mitigation for public health. To that end, it has achieved impressive coverage. More than 1.8 billion doses have been administered so far, which means a vast proportion of our adult population has got one or more shots. Children aged 15 years and above were made eligible for covid jabs in the later stages of the programme, which will expand this week to cover those in the 12-14-years age group, even as co-morbidity conditions are dropped for people above 60 who want a booster shot to supplement the usual double-jab regimen. From Wednesday, our CoWin platform will alter its vaccine-slot booking criteria accordingly. As schools reopen and the immunity of older folks who got early protection wanes, the latest tweak makes sense. However, given the government’s limited capacity for immunization, evident in its low outlay as much as slow expansion of vaccine eligibility, it also trails actual demand out there. The Centre’s basic responsibility—and therefore goal—was to act against major waves of covid that risked an overrun of our healthcare system. With most adults jabbed, our week’s rolling average of daily infections under 4,000, and the virus having lost virulence, that risk may have lessened. What has not eased, though, is a need to let an open market emerge that can help fulfil unmet vaccine requirements.

At this stage of the pandemic, people’s own sense of security has begun to display the sort of variations that a central plan cannot address. Even if its immunity regimen is guided by expert advice, it is much too stiff. Some parents also want under-12s immunized (as kids aged above 4 are eligible in the US), for example, while others have taken grim note of the less easily detectable effects of infection on organs like the brain that are yet to be studied in due depth. Individuals aged under 60 whose jabs of early-2021 can be assumed to have lost some efficacy, as revealed by various studies, are in need of boosters too, but remain clueless about when CoWin will give them a chance. Clearly, risk perceptions vary widely across the land. While these are personal anxieties that our state policy can overlook if judged irrelevant to a public-health threat in terms of another covid wave, the country must grant its citizens the space to secure themselves as they (and their doctors) see fit. Given a choice, some may opt for a mix-and-match boost, with an mRNA jab to enhance what they took. As of now, a trip abroad is the only way to acquire the best shield that many argue modern science has to offer. To widen our options, the Centre should ease the path for vaccine makers everywhere to get clearances for local distribution independent of its own overly-restrictive programme.

While large parts of the globe sadly remain under-jabbed, global vaccine output in 2022 is likely to be high enough for supplies to reach ready-to-pay customers in India. The government should keep its own drive going, of course, even as it widens the scope for various other privately-procured doses to be given. For the collation of dosage data, CoWin registration could be kept mandatory, but with age bars and dosage gaps eased in accordance with global safety limits for private jabs. Regulations that apply to other openly-available vaccines must cover the emergence of a barrier-free market too, but emerge it must. The pandemic isn’t over—cases are on the rise in China and other places—and we should soften strictures that constrain our ability to guard ourselves.

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