NEW DELHI: If vulnerable groups in India are to be the first beneficiaries of the COVID-19 vaccine, as enunciated by the government, a whopping 40 crore people, or 30% of India’s total population, will need the vaccine, prompting fears of a scramble, at least in the beginning.
The sheer scale of the numbers, coupled with the fact that the government appears to be slow in putting together a vaccination distribution plan, is worrying experts and planners alike. On June 30, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said that PM Narendra Modi had outlined four guiding principles that would form the foundation of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
These principles included identification and prioritisation of vulnerable groups such as healthcare workers, non-medical frontline corona warriors and vulnerable people among the general population and availability of vaccines without conditions such as domicile.
It also said the vaccine must be affordable and universal, in other words, no person should be left behind, and the entire process from production to vaccination should be monitored and supported in real time with the use of technology.
A query sent to the department of biotechnology secretary Renu Swarup and newly-appointed health secretary Rajesh Bhushan on the vaccination distribution plan remained unanswered but Bhushan, on being asked a related question at a press conference a few days back, had said the vaccine distribution policy was “under deliberation.”
But several government scientists told this newspaper that the pace of discussion and planning for vaccine distribution has been “rather slack” so far.
“I would say that by now we should have had the blueprint ready for who will get the vaccination first under different scenarios—when varying amounts of vaccines are available—but that has not happened yet and that’s worrying,” said a senior government virologist.
Another virologist attached with the department of biotechnology said the “vulnerable section of the society” that are expected to get the medicine first could be nearly 30% of India’s total population.
HCA workers, security forces, elderly may be given COVID vaccine first
“Most likely we will not have doses available for nearly 40 crore people in the beginning. Also, who will be vaccinated first and who will pay for it? I see these details missing,” the virologist, attached with the DBT, said. Some others pointed out that apart from healthcare workers, military and paramilitary forces, the elderly and those with non-communicable diseases should get the vaccine first.
“For that there should be a prioritisation plan in place with mapping done of vulnerable people as quickly as possible,” said Sudhanshu Vrati, executive director of the Regional Centre for Biotechnology in Faridabad, Haryana.
Shahid Jameel, virologist and CEO of Wellcome Trust DBT India Alliance, said while the policy direction from the PMO was sensible, the real test would be its implementation.
“It is not yet clear what vaccines would prove efficacious and get approval in India,” he said. “The next issue would be how many companies would make them for India and what capacity these would have.”
As of now, early human trials of two vaccine candidates developed indigenously, one each by Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadilla, are underway. Phase 3 trials of a vaccine developed by Oxford University, UK, are also set to begin in India.
Oxford’s experimental vaccine, AZD1222, which has been licensed to AstraZeneca with which the Serum Institute of India has tied up for manufacturing, has raised hopes, showing promising results in phase 1 and 2 trials. Apart from this, some vaccines in the US and China, now in advanced stages of trial, could also be months away from being available in significant quantities, provided they are effective.
Vulnerable, high-risk sections
Healthcare workers: 22 lakh
People above 60 years: 12 crore
Hypertension, diabetes, cancer patients: 35 crore
Police, paramilitary personnel: 15 lakh