NEW DELHI : India's expert group on Covid-19 vaccine administration is considering a antibody test driven immunization plan that will include only high-risk population while the majority of the citizens may be required to pay for the vaccines from their own pockets, this newspaper has learnt.
Top sources in the expert group told this newspaper that as per a strategy paper prepared so far, the government will pay for the vaccination of only those above 50, people with co-morbidities and frontline workers.
"The serosurveys conducted in many metropolitan cities so far have indicated that nearly 25-30 % of the population is already exposed to SARS CoV 2 and by the time an effective medicine arrives, this proportion of exposed population in most parts could be much higher," a senior member of the group said.
"In such a scenario it will not be required to vaccinate people with antibodies," he said.
"The government will also pay for the vaccination of only those who are the most vulnerable and also only those among this group who test negative for SARS Cov-2 antibodies," the member said.
Another member confirmed it, saying that while the government still does not have a firm figure or database of those who qualify as the "most vulnerable"-an exercise was already underway to identify and prioritize them.
As per estimates, the population that may need priority vaccination could be around 30-40 crore.
The vaccination plan prepared by the group under Dr V K Paul, member (health) Niti Aayog and co-chaired by Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan has been sent to the Prime Minister's Office for approval.
The disclosure by the committee members comes just days after Adar Poonawala, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine maker (by volume) which has tied up with Oxford university and Astra Zeneca for its Covid-19 vaccine said that Rs 80,000 crore would be required to vaccinate all Indians over a period of one year.
"No company has reached us with a definite cost estimate and we do not think a vaccine will cost over Rs 650 per person once more than one market players are in the fray," a senior health ministry official said.
Three experimental vaccines, that includes the ones by Oxford university, Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila, are under human trials in the country as of now.
Experts meanwhile had mixed views on the Covid-19 vaccination strategy being put forth by the government committee.Immunologist Dr Dipyaman Ganguly said that to start, when access to vaccines are limited, its better to target people who are evidently more susceptible to severe outcomes.
"I have one concern though- have the vaccine trials considered trying it on older population? Usually the trials are on younger healthy adults. But we must remember that most of them are not showing untoward outcomes even in response to natural infection," he pointed out.
"So safety trial data on older population is of utmost necessity for any vaccine."Virologist Dr Gangandeep Kang stressed that denying someone a vaccine on the basis of presence of antibodies in them may not be good idea based on the present evidence.
"We do not know enough about protection from natural infection to be able to say that anyone with antibodies has protection, whether that is a short or long duration," she said.
Virologist Dr Shahid Jameel on the other hand said he was broadly in favour of the proposal by the expert group.
"High risk has to be defined clearly and unambiguously to avoid problems later," said Dr Jameel."
Antibody tests given before vaccine is also a good idea.
Those naturally infected would not benefit from a vaccine but now the antibody tests cost as much as the proposed price of the vaccine- this cost must come down for it to be economically viable.