The Indian COVID vaccine is the new soldier. God forbid, you ask any questions on its efficacy and safety, it is like questioning your own country.
That is exactly what happened when independent scientists questioned the government of India for giving quick approvals to Indian manufacturer Bharat biotech’s Covaxin, which has not finished Phase 3 trials, let alone published any data on its efficacy.
Phase 3 data is the most crucial since it actually gives doctors an idea of how effective a vaccine is against the virus. Among those who raised questions on the hurried process was Dr. Gagandeep Kang, a renowned vaccine specialist and Christian Medical College professor.
She cited the DGCI (Drug Controller of India)’s own guidance where they had said they wanted safety and efficacy data and at least “ two months of follow up”. “ In the case of Covaxin you haven’t finished enrolment. So where is your safety data. There is no efficacy data either”, said Dr Kang to the Indian Express on January 3.
Within hours, she was under attack on social media by sympathisers of the government and by the head of the BJP’s foreign affairs department, Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, who tweeted:
Never mind the irony that his own political views were clearly overshadowing his tweets.
Many of us are indeed proud that India can develop its own vaccine. I’m sure the Bharat Biotech vaccine will be an excellent one. But as citizens, we have every right to ask questions about its safety and the processes involved to clear it. It is not enough to say “ trust our scientists”. We do.
That is why we worry when our leading scientists raise concerns about the processes. Transparency is paramount to building public confidence in vaccines. Everyone raising concerns does not become “ anti BJP” OR “anti India”.
Right of a citizen to ask
So when officials say the vaccine is “110% safe”, or “200 % safe”, I have every right as a citizen to ask “ but what is this based on?”. If I’m injecting something into my body, I will ask as many questions as I want.
The problem goes back to how the government of India handled this in the first place. Many of the doubts people have raised could have been answered when the approvals were announced.
People have waited many months for a vaccine. I don’t think anyone would mind waiting a few more weeks if all safety issues are thoroughly addressed
Instead, India’s Drug Controller only read out a statement to the media and refused to take any questions from journalists. Through the course of the day on January 3, it was then left to the health minister, Harsh Vardhan, and the AIIMS Director, Dr Randeep Guleria, to issue “clarifications” and give explanations.
Some cameras managed to chase the Drug Controller General, VG Somani, when he got into his car and one reporter shouted out a question on whether the vaccine would make people “impotent”! That’s the extent of misinformation about the vaccines. A proper press conference, with officials or even the Health Minister himself, taking all questions, would have gone a long way in reassuring people, dispelling any doubts.
When absurd became bizarre
But the theatre of the absurd got even more bizarre. First, Adar Poonawala of the Serum Institute, which is mass producing the Oxford vaccine in India, said only three vaccines in the world have proven efficacy - Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford-Astrazeneca, and that the rest “are like water”.
Dr Randeep Guleria of AIIMS meanwhile told different media outlets that the Bharat Biotech vaccine was a “back-up”.
Both these statements drew a sharp reaction from the Bharat Biotech boss, Dr Krishna Ella, who defended his company’s vaccine record; repeatedly took digs at the Oxford vaccine, while also hitting out at Dr Guleria for calling the Covaxin a “back-up”.
So now two of the biggest Indian vaccine manufacturers are taking potshots at each other and one of them is openly taking on the director of India’s most eminent medical institute. Ordinary citizens can only watch in horror.
Dr Ella of Bharat Biotech has said the efficacy data of Covaxin will be available by February- march. So it begs the question: why did the government rush through with approvals now?
People have waited many months for a vaccine. I don’t think anyone would mind waiting a few more weeks if all safety issues are thoroughly addressed. The only explanation for this quick approval seems to be an eagerness on the government’s part to showcase an “atmanirbhar Bharat” or self reliant India.
I do not agree at all with former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s irresponsible comment that he won’t take a “BJP vaccine”. The vaccine does not belong to any political party. But there is a need for transparency in the processes involved and all data must be put out in public domain and independently verified.
The whole world is watching India and real nationalists won’t let the politics of vaccine nationalism hijack this critical issue.