India is all set to kickstart the world's biggest Covid-19 vaccination drive with two shots – Covaxin and Covishield tomorrow (on January 16). But there are no clear answers from the government on as both vaccines would be treated equally at the ground level though Covaxin lacks efficacy data.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday morning will launch the campaign at 3,006 session sites across all the states and Union Territories and around 100 beneficiaries would be vaccinated at each site. Healthcare workers, both in government and private sectors including ICDS workers, will receive the vaccine in this phase.
Multiple public health researchers told DH that there were "no specific instructions given to the states on which vaccine is to be used for which category of workers".
The Union Health Ministry has procured 11 million doses of Covishield, manufactured by the Serum Institute, Pune and 5.5 million doses of Covaxin made by Bharat Biotech, Hyderabad. The full initial procurement of 16.5 million doses has been allocated to the states according to the healthcare worker database.
"There are no specific instructions on which vaccine is to be used for which category of workers. The stock will be used as per the recipients' lists. Some will indeed get Covaxin as, according to the programme, all vaccines are being treated equally," said a senior public health specialist in Delhi.
The two-vaccine rollout comes amid concerns among a section of scientists, medical researchers and policy planners on the governmental push being given to the Bharat Biotech vaccine without the efficacy data even though the epidemic has been on a decline since September.
"The government has still not clarified the basis of the original unusual approval for Covaxin use and the actual terms and conditions under which its 'emergency use' is to be done," said senior scientist Satyajit Rath, a visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research, Pune.
"Not waiting for preliminary Covaxin efficacy evidence to actually start quite small numbers of injections of Covaxin is simply one more step in a process which seems more focused on nationalist brownie points than on substantive public good."
Earlier this week, health officials stated there would be no choice for the vaccine recipients. Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan asserted that no other country offered such a choice.
"Providing a vaccine without adequate efficacy data can lead to a false sense of security among vaccine recipients. A greater degree of transparency prior to the start of the vaccination programme is essential. This is especially true for Covaxin for which phase-3 safety and efficacy data are not yet available," said a group of scientists from the Indian Academy of Sciences in a statement.
But another group of researchers – backed by BJP – came out openly in support of the two vaccines asking the people to "reject the manipulations of vested interests aimed at politicisation and defamation of our nation's scientists, doctors and scientific community for their narrow vested interests".