In February 1976, the US secretary of health made a dire prediction. The 1918 Spanish Flu, he said, was to hit the country in September and kill at least a million people.
The apocalypse was predicted by the US government after the death of a soldier because of what looked like a new form of flu. Within weeks, the US government hit the panic button even as the WHO prescribed caution. By April, the US had signed the ‘National Swine Flu Immunization Program’, and in October a massive vaccination drive to beat the upcoming epidemic was in full bloom.
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The epidemic never hit the US shores. But, by the end of the year, hundreds of patients had been admitted to various hospitals because of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder that required immediate hospitalisation and emergency care. Research indicated later that the syndrome was triggered by shots given for the non-existent threat.
That year’s experience taught an important lesson in epidemiology: A vaccine can be more dangerous than the disease it aims to cure/prevent.
But, the Indian government appears to have forgotten this.
On Sunday (January 3) morning, the Indian government granted Indian vaccine-maker Bharat Biotech permission to market its coronavirus jab, called Covaxin, in India. The shot was approved even as the vaccine was being trialled for efficacy in several parts of India and seeking volunteers for participating in the trial.
The Narendra Modi government’s decision was almost an encore of Russia’s nod to a vaccine before the third-stage trials could be completed.
The third-stage trials are the most important in the development of a vaccine. During this stage, a large number of volunteers are given the shot to see if they are able to ward off the targeted disease in a real-world setting instead of a lab or a controlled environment. Only after the subjects of the trial remain unaffected by the disease for a considerable duration of time compared to the general population, or another set of volunteers who are given a placebo, a vaccine is considered eligible for mass immunisation.
In Covaxin’s case, India has jumped this crucial step. It has approved the Bharat Biotech vaccine even before finding out if it really works in the real world, on real people.
In this context, it is informative to read the comments of Adar Poonwalla, owner of Serum Institute of India, made on a TV channel soon after the government approved Covaxin along with a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca in association with the Oxford University. “Only three vaccines in the world work. The rest are safe like water,” Poonawalla said.
What Poonawalla meant was that only three vaccines — those developed by AstraZeneca, pharma giant Pfizer and US newbie Moderna — have shown they can kill the coronavirus. The other vaccines, including Covaxin, are as safe as water but nobody knows if they can effectively deal with the virus. Serum Institute of India is manufacturing the AstraZeneca shots for use in India and global exports.
Approving a vaccine that is not known to be effective is not only unethical, unscientific and irrational but outright dangerous. It is almost similar to asking a person to jump without checking if their parachute actually works or is just a useless accessory.
The biggest irony here is that there was no need for the government to push out an untested jab for mass use. India had the luxury of using the Astrazeneca shot, which was also approved on Sunday, before trials of other vaccines proved their efficacy. And, since the pandemic is on a bit of decline, its curve has been flattened, India could have afforded the wait.
But, undue haste has been the hallmark of India’s immunisation programme from the very beginning. In June 2020, the Indian drug controller had surprised everyone with the announcement that it is getting an indigenously developed vaccine ready for a rollout around August 15, within six weeks flat. Only after the plan was laughed off as a fantasy by global experts was the announcement retracted.
If you noticed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweets after the two vaccines were approved for use in India, the reasons for the government’s impatience would have become clear.
“It would make every Indian proud that the two vaccines that have been given emergency use approval are made in India! This shows the eagerness of our scientific community to fulfil the dream of an Aatmanirbhar Bharat, at the root of which is care and compassion,” the PM tweeted.
India, it is obvious, wants to imitate China and Russia. It wants to play the game of vaccine nationalism. For the government, the vaccine is an opportunity to declare to its constituents that it is right up there with the West, and China, when it comes to scientific and medical advancements.
The idea of competing with the world for a vaccine, using it as a pretext for thumping chests, is obviously daft. For, the vaccine is a reminder that cooperation, not competition, is the most effective weapon during a pandemic.
The coronavirus vaccine has been developed in record time not because scientists and biologists worked secretly in their silos — like the warriors of yore who raced with each other to develop the first atom bomb or put the first man on the moon — but because they shared knowledge, exchanged ideas and used open platforms for research and development.
The biggest example of this spirit of cooperation is the other vaccine approved by the Indian government along with Covaxin. It was researched by scientists at the Oxford University, developed by AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish multinational, and produced by Poonawalla’s Serum Institute. But, instead of celebrating this spirit of cooperation, India has embarked on a silly race of egos.
The world is already full of people who are wary of a coronavirus vaccine. Sending out an untested vaccine in this environment of skepticism is self-defeating. All of us are hopeful that the ‘Indian vaccine’ would be effective in dealing with the virus. But, when it comes to saving lives, hope isn’t a smart strategy.
In case the vaccine fails, or leads to some serious side-effects, the zeal to become atmanirbhar (self-reliant) could turn atmaghati (harmful to self).