The government should ensure that the available stocks of vaccine are used efficiently
The downward trend in fresh coronavirus infections in India continues to inspire confidence that the pandemic is on the wane. The daily new cases fell below 10,000 for the third time this month. India’s tally is now 10.9 million cases and fresh reported fatalities were recorded below 100 for the eighth time this month, according to Health Ministry data. On January 1, there were around 20,000 fresh infections, which fell to about 11,000 by the month end. Should this sharp decline continue for this month too, then it would be a truly propitious turn of events. So far, around 8.2 million doses of vaccine have been administered to healthcare workers and some frontline workers, though this is still below the first lot of 16.5 million doses of Covishield and Covaxin that the government commissioned from their manufacturers. India has also managed to donate vaccines to neighbouring countries. For now, supply seems to far exceed demand, with only around half of those enrolled for vaccinations showing up for their doses. Saturday marked 28 days since the first doses of vaccine were administered and time for the first batch of those inoculated to show up for their second dose. The government is also considering administering vaccines to those above 50 and those younger with co-morbidities from March. India is also likely to get 97 million doses of Covishield by June — half of them by March.
This is a far cry from many countries where demand far exceeds supply and experiments are under way to test if different vaccines can be administered as first and second doses, so that more people may get at least one dose. However, the disappearance of a pandemic does not equate to the vanishing of the virus. The results of the ongoing serology surveys from the ICMR, meant to estimate the prevalence of COVID-antibodies, say that only around 21% of the population has been exposed to the virus. That, combined with the fact that there is so far no reliable information on the kind of coronavirus variants prevalent in the population, means that India can ill-afford to be complacent. Though dreaded variants such as the South African one have not yet been identified in India, key mutations (E484K and N440K) that are known to help the coronavirus evade antibodies have been reported in India. In spite of a consortium of labs analysing variants since December, there is no firm indication from the Centre if the U.K. variant has been found outside of those with a history of international travel. However, the government’s message to not be complacent and continue to adhere to mask use is in the right scientific spirit, given the uncertainty about virus evolution. Considerable hesitancy continues to exist as evidenced in Chhattisgarh. The Centre should work on furnishing efficacy data on Covaxin as well as improving public confidence, in ways that the available stocks of vaccine can be efficiently used.