India's Covid-19 vaccine draws hesitation amid quick approvals

A healthcare worker receives the Bharat Biotech's Covaxin vaccine at All India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital in New Delhi. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Doctors and experts say the government needs to improve its communication on drug safety amid concerns over the speedy approvals of vaccines, as well as glitches in a government app which resulted in only 64 per cent of intended recipients on the first two days of the nation's vaccine roll-out getting their shots.

The CoWIN app is being used by the government to alert recipients when it is their turn to get a shot.

India, which started vaccinations last Saturday (Jan 16), has approved two vaccines for emergency use: Covishield, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, and Covaxin, developed by local firm Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) - National Institute of Virology (NIV).

But there are question marks over Covaxin, which is still in third stage trials.

"Covaxin may be better than the others or at least as good but people want evidence. So they are saying let us wait and see. If we are safe for 10 months, we would rather wait another month," said Dr Rajendra Prasad, senior consultant neurosurgeon and Spine Surgeon at Delhi's Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals.

A survey by LocalCircles, a citizen-survey platform from New Delhi, found that 62 per cent of people across the nation were willing to wait a few months before getting a jab.

Some 59 per cent of those who would rather wait said the primary reason was concern over the side effects of the vaccine, while 18 per cent said it was because the vaccines' effectiveness is not yet known.

Doctors said that there was a trust deficit that needed to be addressed.

Dr Partho Bora, president of the Federation of Resident Doctors' Association, said the government should meet doctors to clear their doubts about Covaxin.

"If common people get the message from healthcare workers (that the vaccines are not safe), they will follow. All doubt should be cleared," said Dr Bora.

India is the second-worst country affected by the pandemic, after the United States, with more than 10.6 million b cases reported. On Wednesday, 15,223 new cases were recorded.

As the country rolls out one of the world's largest vaccination drives, cases have been on a downward trend over the last three months.

The plan is to vaccinate 10 million health workers, followed by 20 million front-line workers and then those over 50 and under 50 who have other illnesses.

The authorities say it is unfortunate that people are hesitant about the vaccines.

"Unfortunate that there is hesitation among healthcare workers towards Covid vaccine. Healthcare workers should have faith in our system," said Dr. V. K. Paul, a member of NITI Aayog, the government's policy think-tank, at a press conference on Tuesday.

Dr Paul, who received the indigenous vaccine on the first day, said he had not suffered any reaction so far, and urged doctors and healthcare workers to accept it.

He said: "We would like to reassure them with the data we have seen that the two Covid-19 vaccines are safe. The vaccine hesitancy should end. How will we defeat the pandemic then?"

The health ministry said there were no serious or severe reactions to the vaccination among the 786,000 people vaccinated.

On Tuesday, Bharat Biotech said people should not have Covaxin if they have weakened immunity, are on medicines affecting the immune system or blood thinners, or have allergies.

The Serum Institute of India (SII) said those who have "had a severe allergic reaction to any ingredient of the vaccine" should not use it.

Health workers wait in the observation area after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine at the Rajawadi Hospital in Mumbai on Jan 19, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

But the authorities remain positive that as more and more people get vaccinated, confidence will go up.

"Going for vaccination is a personal decision, and people's confidence will get boosted slowly," Delhi health minister Satyender Jain told reporters. In the capital city, 3,598 out of 8,136 recipients were vaccinated on Tuesday.

Dr Anant Phadke of the All India Drug Action Network noted that people are afraid of reactions to the vaccine but health workers are at more risk of Covid-19. "Amongst them I don't think it is worthwhile to have vaccine hesitancy," he said.

Prof Rajib Dasgupta, chairman of the centre for social medicine and community health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that since this was a new vaccine, the campaign had to revolve around educating people on the vaccines and adverse effects following immunisation.

"Proactive and transparent data sharing shall help build back trust among the first batch of vaccines including doctors and health workers who, along with the institutions they represent, can emerge as role models," said Prof Dasgupta.

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