Monday, May 03, 2021

A Novel IS Being Written - What's India's Role In The Unfolding Narrative?

consortiumnews  |   The unfolding pandemic horror in India has many causes. These include the complacency, inaction and irresponsibility of government leaders, even when it was evident for several months that a fresh wave of infections of new mutant variants threatened the population. Continued massive election rallies, many addressed by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, brought large numbers to congested gatherings and lulled many into underplaying the threat of infection.

The incomprehensible decision to allow a major Hindu religious festival — the Mahakumbh Mela, held every 12 years — to be brought forward by a full year, on the advice of some astrologers, brought millions from across India to one small area along the Ganges River and contributed to ‘super-spreading’ the disease.  

The exponential explosion of Covid-19 cases — and it is likely much worse than officially reported, because of inadequate testing and undercounting of cases and deaths — has revealed not just official hubris and incompetence but lack of planning and major deficiencies in the public health system. The shortage of medical oxygen, for instance, has effectively become a proximate cause of death for many patients.

Failing Vaccination Program

But one significant — and entirely avoidable — reason for the catastrophe is the failing vaccination programme. Even given the global constraints posed by rich-country vaccine-grabbing and the limits on domestic production set by the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement, this is unnecessary and unexpected.

India is home to the largest vaccine producer in the world and has several other companies capable of producing vaccines. Before the pandemic, 60 per cent of the vaccines used in the developing world for child immunisation were manufactured in India.

The country has a long tradition of successful vaccination campaigns, against polio and tuberculosis for infants and a range of other diseases. The available infrastructure for inoculation, urban and rural, could have been quickly mobilised.

In January, the government approved two candidates for domestic use: the Covishield (Oxford-AstraZeneca) vaccine, produced in India by the Serum Institute of India, and Covaxin, produced by Bharat Biotech under a manufacturing licence from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) — other producers could have been similarly licenced to enhance supply.

The vaccination program officially started on Jan. 16 , with the initial target of covering 30 million healthcare and frontline workers by the end of March and 250 million people by July. By April 17 , however, only 37 percent of frontline workers had received both doses (of either vaccine); an additional 30 percent had received only the first.

Low uptake even among this vulnerable group could have resulted from concerns about the rapid regulatory approval granted to Covaxin, which had not completed Phase III trials. The Indian government also encouraged exports, partly to fulfil commitments by the Serum Institute of India to AstraZeneca and the global COVAX facility — partly to enhance its own standing among developing countries.