Emerging from the Holy Family Hospital in New Delhi, Ram Verma, a health worker, sighed deeply with relief. As one of the first in India to receive a coronavirus vaccine on Saturday – marking the start of the world’s largest vaccination programs – he felt a little nervous.
“I have to admit I was nervous,”
Anila Singh, a nurse at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Sofia, said she almost cried with relief when she heard she would be among the first to receive the vaccine. “I thought about all those I had seen dying, all the families who had lost someone they loved, and my own daily fear of getting the virus, it all came back,” she said. “Finally, we’ll turn the page.”
Across India, 3,006 vaccination centers have begun the mammoth task of vaccinating 300 million people by August, with health workers, police and the military in the first place. India ranks second in the world in Covid-19 cases, with more than 10.5 million cases and more than 151,000 deaths.
Two vaccines have received urgent approval for India’s immunization program: the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine, known in India as Covishield, and Covaxin, a domestic product developed by Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech in conjunction with the Indian Medical Research Council, a government body.
Although it was a slow start on Saturday, the pressure was to pick up the pace. Within a week, Mumbai plans to vaccinate 50,000 people every day, while in Delhi the figure is even more ambitious. “Once we have 1,000 vaccination centers in the city, we will vaccinate 100,000 every day,” said Dr. Suneela Garg, who heads the vaccination working group in Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the start of the vaccine program as a moment of pride for India, saying it was “showing the world our ability”. Still, a shadow loomed over the industry as doctors, health advocates and scientists questioned the adequacy and safety of Covaxin and accused the government of a side protocol to approve it.
The vaccine has not completed phase 3 trials in humans and there is no definitive evidence of its efficacy, which puts India among Russia and China, which have also decided to release the vaccine in its trial phase. The government said Covaxin was “100% safe” and that 5.5 million doses of it had been shipped nationwide on Saturday, although they would be given in a “trial mode”.
On Saturday, the Ram Manohar Lochia Hospital Medical Association wrote a letter to the hospital’s chief expressing concern about Covaxin and asking to be allowed to have Covishield instead.
Dr. Nirmalya Mohapatra, senior resident physician and vice president of the association, said: “There are many concerns because we do not have the same data for Kovaxin. We are healthcare professionals and we are worried that Covaxin may not protect us from another wave of infection because it is still being tested. So we just want to be given the opportunity to choose which vaccine we are given. “
Mohapatra said that without being offered a choice, it could lead to widespread refusal to accept the vaccine among doctors. Only 31 of the 100 health workers registered to receive the vaccine showed up at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital on Saturday, partly due to technical difficulties, but also due to staff concerns that the hospital offered only Covaxin.
Bharat Biotech is also accused of ethical violations, as it is alleged that it tested Covaxin on people in the slums of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh without them knowing it was a process. Seven people claimed to have been told they were receiving a vaccine to protect them from the virus and had received Rs 750 without knowing that it was an untested vaccine or that they might have received a placebo.
In a letter to the government, a number of health rights organizations, including the All India Drug Action Network, the Medical Ethics Society Forum and the People’s Health Movement India, called for a halt to the trial of Covaxin in Bhopal. “Evidence shows incitement, which is a violation of the principle of voluntary participation without incitement or coercion,” they said. “Many participants were misled into getting involved in the process, and their vulnerabilities were affected.”
Bharat Biotech denied any ethical violations and stated that the trial fully complied with “the guidelines for good clinical practice and all regulatory provisions applicable to the conduct of clinical trials in India”.
The Covaxin questions also did not help the government’s desperate attempts to counter the misinformation and false rumors about vaccines circulating on WhatsApp and inciting hesitation. On Wednesday, Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Keirival, urged people to remain vigilant against vaccine misinformation.
At a spinal injury center in New Delhi, Dr. Kali Data Das, a surgeon, said some fake rumors on WhatsApp about the vaccine caused excitement at the last minute on Saturday. However, he remained optimistic. “Today we vaccinated 100 employees and it was a very positive mood because people felt that there was finally a solution for Covid-19,” Das said.