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Saturday Interview | ‘Care needed to curb virus’

The Union Government appointed Dr Paul as a Member of NITI Aayog in August 2017.

Swimmi Shrivastava | New Delhi |

DR VINOD K. PAUL is a globally recognised medical scientist and a public health exponent. He served on the faculty of the Department of Paediatrics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, from 1985 to 2020, and was Head of the Department for nearly a decade.

The Union Government appointed Dr Paul as a Member of NITI Aayog in August 2017. He is part of the Government’s core team for the Covid-19 response.

He chairs the Empowered Group on Medical Infrastructure and Covid Management Plan, the National Task Force on Covid-19 (ICMR) as well as the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC).

In an interview with SWIMMI SHRIVASTAVA, Dr Paul talks about the government’s massive Covid-19 vaccination programme and explains why everyone needs to be careful during the ongoing festive season.

Excerpts:

Q: What is the impact of this high level of vaccine coverage on the people; do they need to continue with precautions?

A: Three-fourths of the adult population of our vast nation that has received at least one vaccine dose has secured the shield of immunity. They all are largely protected against severe diseases and mortality due to Covid19. This enables them to lead a near normal (the ‘new normal’) life.

But they continue to be vulnerable to an extent to contract infection and spread it to others. Hence, all the vaccinated individuals must continue to take preventive precautions.

All of us must wear masks, we should avoid crowds and gatherings, and or be indoors with many people. Keep the chain of virus transmission suppressed.

We should be doubly careful during the festival season. Let us have our celebrations at home, with the family and avoid visiting busy markets. There will be festivals every year. But this year, our carelessness can give the upper hand to the virus at an unacceptable cost to lives and livelihoods.

If we are careful and have modest (yet spiritually satisfying) celebrations, we would avoid an upsurge in the pandemic. The next three months are absolutely critical for attaining high vaccination coverage, and to simultaneously avert any outbreak by responsible collective restraint and conduct.

Q: Now that the country has achieved over 100-crore vaccinations,what does it mean for India?

A: This achievement was a momentous landmark for the country. India began the vaccination drive against Covid-19 on 16 January 2021. We first gave the vaccine to healthcare professionals and frontline workers, and then enlarged the circle of eligible population.

Initially, there were just over 3,000 vaccination centres across the country, today there are more than one lakh. As a result, we have been able to vaccinate over 70-80 lakh people every day, which is more than the entire population of several countries.

Not many in the world would have thought India could administer a vaccine to a billion people in nine months. And, that too with two vaccines made on the soil of India. It is a grand example of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. Apart from providing protection against the deadly disease, this success has given us confidence that we can handle a crisis of this magnitude on our own.

Going forward, I am optimistic that not only can we change the course of the pandemic globally, but also revolutionise research and development to address other diseases effectively.

Q: What challenges had to be addressed in this journey? What made this effort a success?

A: To reach here, the country overcame people’s apprehensions related to the safety and usefulness of the newly developed vaccines. Nine months on, the vaccines have proved to be effective and highly safe. Vaccine hesitancy due to ignorance, bias and, at times, misleading propaganda has been largely overcome.

Challenges of vaccine supply, transportation, cold chain dynamics and vaccine centre logistics were met by building on the invaluable experience of the universal immunization programme. Communication efforts were directed to educate, assure, motivate and prepare the public through transparent, science-driven, consistent and multi-pronged messaging.

Co-Win IT platform emerged as the master enabler for beneficiary interphase, session planning, certification and data management. Our scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, industry leaders have all contributed to this effort.

Our science laboratories of DBT and ICMR have worked day and night. But ultimately, it is the relentless effort of our healthcare teams who have been working with the community on the ground that has made the country achieve 100crore vaccinations.

They have been fighting social and geographical odds at various levels to bring people to the vaccination centres. The 100-crore mark demonstrates the reach and resilience of our public health system.

Q: What did the government do to facilitate, support and encourage research and development of the vaccines?

A:  For a nation that is admired as the ‘pharmacy of the world’ and that delivers two-thirds of all the world’s vaccines for children – to pick up the challenge to develop/manufacture Covid-19 vaccines was a given.

The Prime Minister guided and mentored this journey from the very start. The government established a task force as early as April 2020 to oversee, support, encourage and monitor R&D initiatives amongst the research organizations and in the industry.

Potential candidate vaccines were tracked and supported with research and development grants. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) opened their laboratories for complex assays for research groups and industry.

ICMR provided the vaccine virus strain to the industry to develop Covaxin. DBT readied 18 vaccine trial field sites that were used by industry for trials.

Government launched a Rs 900-crore Mission Covid Suraksha to fund a multi-level R&D effort. At least eight entities have received large grants. Government also made an outright advance purchase commitment for a vaccine still under development.

The National Expert Group on Vaccine Implementation (NEGVAC) provided guidelines on vaccine programmes. Government teams have been in touch with manufacturers on a continuous basis. Regulatory steps were streamlined and all facilitation was ensured.

Made-in-India Covishield (Serum) and Covaxin (Bharat) have been the bedrock of our programme so far. But our industry has lined up four other vaccines for potential use in coming months: a DNA vaccine (Zydus; already licenced), an mRNA vaccine (Gennova), a protein subunit vaccine (BioE) and an intranasal vector vaccine (Bharat).

In addition, Indian companies have successfully ensured technology transfer for three foreign developed vaccines, namely, Sputnik light, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. This totals a bouquet of nine vaccines being produced in India.

Which other nation has such a large portfolio of vaccines? All this will serve our cause fully, and fulfil global needs in the near future.