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Vol. XXX No. 19, February 1-15, 2021
Vaccination in progress. Picture Courtesy: The Hindu.
With the receipt of its allotted consignment of covid vaccines earlier this month, CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami inaugurated the state’s vaccination drive in Madurai. Tamil Nadu has reportedly received 5.56 lakh doses of the covid vaccine, split as 5.36 lakh doses of the Covishield vaccine and 20,000 doses of the Covaxin vaccine. The vaccination drive will be rolled out in multiple stages. Healthcare workers such as doctors, nurses, paramedical staff and others will be vaccinated first, followed by frontline administrative workers such as the corporation staff and police officials. Next, the elderly above fifty years of age will be given priority for vaccination, followed by those below fifty years who have comorbidities. Finally, the vaccine will be rolled out to the general population. The state has already conducted dry runs of the planned vaccination drive, an effort that received appreciation from Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan. In an interview with Citizen Matters, GCC Commissioner G. Prakash specified that multiple centres in Chennai have been identified to deliver the vaccine to the people, including the Corporation health facilities, private hospitals and medical colleges.
The preparations seem quite solid, in keeping with our state’s largely commendable track record in public health projects. However, some are concerned about the vaccines themselves – specifically, the indigenous Covaxin vaccine developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology. The Covaxin vaccine – unlike Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the UK – is still undergoing Phase 3 trials, which measures its efficacy. The regulator has tempered its approval of the Covaxin vaccine by specifying that it is to have “restricted use in eme rgency situations in public interest as an abundant precaution.” The move has given rise to heated debates – on one hand, we have health & administrative experts who claim to be stunned that a vaccine under trial has been greenlit for public consumption; on the other, we have the regulator and manufacturer fiercely defending the decision by pointing out that the vaccine has passed its phase 2 trial successfully, underlining the need for Covaxin if we’re to put an end to the pandemic. As always, it is the layman who is caught in the middle – after all, the vaccination drive is already underway. Further complicating the matter, the government has confirmed that some prioritised demographics would not be able to choose which of the two vaccines they receive. Patients get what is available at the site.
This has given rise to understandable confusion. In fact, with doctors themselves split in their opinion on the vaccines, many are uncertain about getting vaccinated at all. It’s a concerning development. Health experts warn that Covid vaccines can be expected to reduce fatality, not transmission of the virus – most calculate that a significantly large proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated if we are to reach herd immunity. That’s not going to be easy to achieve if the public shies away from the vaccines.
One might argue that the controversy is inflated, at least from Tamil Nadu’s point of view, given that the state has received only 20,000 doses of Covaxin in it’s arsenal of 5.56 lakh vaccine doses. However, it is important to protect the people’s trust in our healthcare system. It can’t be denied that some effort has been made in this regard – for instance, Dr. Manoj Murhekar (Director, National Institute of Epidemiology, ICMR), Dr. E. Theranirajan (Dean, Rajiv Gandhi General Hospital) and other healthcare providers recently received the Covaxin vaccine at the Rajiv Gandhi General Hospital in Chennai, with the aim of instilling public confidence in the vaccine. The New Indian Express quotes Dr. Theranirajan saying, “… after I took it, a few directors of various departments in the hospital, professors and others took Covaxin and more people came forward and registered for it.” While this is a step in the right direction, one feels that more can – and should – be done to educate the public on the importance and safety of the vaccination drive. It is also important to have a transparent informational system in place that answers the layman’s questions, doubts or fears around the vaccines.
As members of the public, it is crucial that we recognize our responsibility in bringing about an end to this pandemic that has claimed countless lives in our state and country. And for the public to step up to the plate, it needs support from the administration in terms of information and transparency. To defeat the coronavirus, we need to work together.