Home >Opinion >Views >Let vaccine data clarity serve as a booster shot

With India in the throes of a second covid wave, one that threatens to suffocate lives and livelihoods again, it is hard not to recoil in revulsion from the war of words that has broken out in the arena of politics over our vaccination programme. The country’s seven-day average of daily new infections has risen above 100,000, worse than last year’s peak. Even a faint spectre of a replay of our Spanish flu experience a century ago, which inflicted far more suffering in its encore, ought to have concentrated the minds of all those in authority. Instead, we have had a big public spat over vaccine availability and access. On Wednesday, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan slammed our worst-affected state Maharashtra for its complaint of a vaccine shortage, calling it “baseless" and accusing it of a failure to fight the pandemic. He also spurned calls from some state leaders to let all adults get jabs—instead of just over-45s—as attempts to politicize the crisis and cover up their inadequacies. Ground reports suggest that while some vaccine centres suffer shortfalls, others are short of footfalls. Clearly, this exercise needs far greater efficiency. And, for that, we must lift the shroud of opacity over it. We need a data dashboard on our Co-Win platform that operates much like a blockchain ledger system does: with vaccine capacity, output, supplies and doses administered open to granular verification across multiple points. We also need routine updates on side-effects. This way, we can at least all be on the same page.

As of now, we only have dribs and drabs of information from official sources to go by. Supply scarcity is a reality in many places, as Harsh Vardhan acknowledged, and vaccine-maker Serum Institute of India (SII) was recently constrained to delay its export commitments, for which its client AstraZeneca has sought to haul it up. Yet, it is not clear why we do not have adequate vials. SII had 100 million doses to start with, and said it would churn out 60-65 million doses every month of the AstraZeneca vaccine, branded Covishield in India. But only a little over 90 million jabs have been given across the country since we embarked on this mission nearly three months ago. Even after accounting for exports of 60 million doses, and considering that we also have Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, we should not be facing a crunch. Are wastage levels higher than reckoned? Reliable estimates on this remain elusive, but then, so do other numbers.

An online vaccination dashboard that follows the principles of collective book-keeping, complete with tally checks, would lend the process due transparency. It could even set the stage for market mechanisms to act as a catalyst. Real-time disclosures on side-effects, meanwhile, could help allay public qualms. Our data on that is outdated. On Thursday, our official panel on adverse reactions widened its purview to include the extremely rare but still scary possibility of a jab recipient developing blood clots within a fortnight. A day earlier, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had put out an advisory saying that while AstraZeneca’s vaccine was use-worthy against covid, its recipients must stay alert to specified clot symptoms and doctors should be ready to diagnose and treat the ailment. A few dozen cases of it were enough for the EMA to research this. Here, too, we need an assurance that our health guardians are tracking all physiological responses. The ideal way to generate public confidence would be to keep everyone clued in, not clueless.

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