One of India’s foremost public health experts and an eminent former head of cardiology at AIIMS has said that the President and the Prime Minister of the country should publicly take Covaxin to overcome vaccine hesitancy and, specifically, concerns about Bharat Biotech’s vaccine.
Asked pointedly whether he would advise the President and the Prime Minister to publicly take Covaxin, Dr. Srinath Reddy, the president of the Public Health Foundation of India, said: “Yes, as a scientist and a public health expert (I would).”
However, Dr. Reddy added that you cannot compel someone to take a vaccine. But he also agreed that if the President and Prime Minister refuse to take any vaccine that would be likely to encourage vaccine hesitancy rather than reduce it.
In a 35-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Dr. Reddy also said that given the fear that India could experience a second spike and given the high levels of vaccine hesitancy during the first six weeks of the vaccine roll out starting January 16, his advice to the government is that it should accept the WHO guidelines announced on February 10 that the interval between the two doses of AstraZeneca should be increased from 28 days to somewhere between 8 and 12 weeks. Increasing the gap between the doses would ensure more people get one dose quickly and are thus protected if there is a second spike. The Hindustan Times on Saturday, February 27, reported that government data says on average nationwide only 48% of people entitled to take the vaccine have so far done so.
Reddy said that it would make sense for the government to tackle the districts where COVID-19 cases are worryingly increasing by an enhanced and comprehensive effort to vaccinate the vulnerable in these districts. This should happen alongside the calibrated nationwide roll out that is underway. He said in the districts where COVID-19 cases are increasing “the vulnerable are at greater risk and there’s need for an increased effort in these districts”.
However, Reddy had serious concerns and doubts about permitting the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine to be sold in the private market in India. Speaking in detail about Pfizer, Reddy readily accepted that scientifically its efficacy and safety have been very well established. Secondly, Pfizer has made clear that it can now be stored at temperatures between -15°C and -18°C which the freezer compartment of a frigidaire can handle. However, Reddy had concerns about the cost and the quantity Pfizer would make available, particularly given the fact European countries are quarrelling over Pfizer supplies. Reddy also had concerns about equity. Would it be right for Pfizer to be available for those who can afford it whilst the preponderant majority in the country were left to have a vaccine whose efficacy is believed to be less than Pfizer?
Speaking about the rising number of COVID-19 cases, Reddy said: “We don’t know for sure why this is happening” just as we did not know for sure why cases were sharply coming down despite the festive season, state elections, farmer protests and a cold winter. However, he added: “It’s clear there’s been laxity”. He said: “I believe the feeling we have passed the crisis and acquired herd immunity on a large scale led to complacency.”
Reddy told The Wire: “There is room for concern and need for action to ensure we don’t have a large second spike with worrying repercussions”.
Reddy also said three factors will determine whether the present rise in cases becomes a worrying second spike. The first is the behaviour of the mutant viruses. The second is the behaviour of the population. The third is the vaccine roll out and its swiftness and depth.
Speaking to The Wire about the three foreign mutant strains and, in particular, the UK variant, Reddy said genome testing began after December and it is possible that this virus could have embedded itself in certain pockets of the population before that date. We need to test to find out whether that is the case.
Speaking about the two Indian mutant strains – N440K and E484Q – Reddy said that he is reasonably reassured that they do not hold the same level of threat of high spread and virulence, because N440K was detected 13 times between May and September 2020 in Telangana, Andhra and Assam whilst E484Q was detected four times in Maharashtra between March and July 2020.
However, he added, we do have to bear in mind the example of the British variant. It was first detected in September but it was only in December that British scientists realised that this variant was spreading considerably faster than the original strain of the virus. That could turn out to be the case with one or both of the two Indian mutant strains.
Find the full interview here.