Allergy-Like Reactions To COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates an ‘Expected Effect’

Healthcare workers watch PM Narendra Modi address them by video to launch India’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, Kolkata, January 16, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri.

Mumbai: On January 16, as the first day of India’s COVID-19 vaccination drive concluded, the government of Delhi released official data of its efforts.

Among the numbers were 51 “minor” and one “severe” cases of adverse events following immunisation (AEFI). They were all among health workers who had been shortlisted to receive vaccine candidates in the first phase of the country’s vaccination drive – the world’s largest.

According to Delhi officials, almost all cases were “transient” and “minor”. Only one person – a 20-something security guard at the city’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences – had to be hospitalised.

According to AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria, the security guard had complained of palpitations and developed an allergic skin rash within 20 minutes of being inoculated, and was admitted to the facility. His condition, Dr Guleria added, has remained stable.

Delhi had aimed to inoculate 8,117 healthcare workers on the first day of the drive, in 11 districts; it managed 4,319, the data showed. And of them, 52 reported AEFIs.

There have been similar reports, of minor effects, from other parts of the country. Some complained of mild fever, body ache and nausea – although none of them have devolved to anything worse.

This is an “expected effect” of any immunisation vaccine, Dr Akshay Baheti, a radiologist at the Tata Memorial Hospital, explained.

“It is only normal to get fever, headache and nausea after being vaccinated. It only means that the antibody has landed well and the body is responding to it,” Dr Baheti said. In his telling, focusing too much on the “side effects” without really studying the cause could whip up a frenzy – especially when the vaccination drive is only just getting underway.

Also read: COVID-19 Vaccine Roll-Out FAQ: Dos, Don’ts and Other Tips

The Government of India launched the drive simultaneously across the country, and experts prepared the shortlist of people to be vaccinated based on their medical histories. As a result, for example, people who reported allergies have been pushed to later rounds of vaccination.

“This is done to ensure that we don’t have cases of adverse reactions right when the vaccination drive is being launched in the country,” Dr Baheti said. “The government is taking all measures to ensure people don’t get scared and are more willing to participate in the drive.”

“Several health workers who admitted to having allergies were sent back, and told they would be administered a vaccine at later dates.”

He also pointed to a certain compound in the mRNA vaccine doses’ packaging – polyethylene glycol – had a propensity to trigger allergy-like reactions. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccine candidates use the mRNA technology.

“This compound is not present in the vaccine [candidates being] used in India,” according to him. The Indian candidates have “other components” that warrant more study. “But going by the data in hand, we don’t have anything to worry about right now.”

The Indian government has split its vaccination drive into multiple phases. In the first phase, expected to last until mid-2021, the government is aiming to administer the vaccine candidates among three crore frontline workers.

The two candidates are Covaxin, an indigenous product made by Bharat Biotech with help from the Indian Council of Medical Research, and Covishield, made by Serum Institute of India under a license from British drug-maker AstraZeneca.

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