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Senior citizens, high-risk workers to get vaccine first: Harsh Vardhan

As COVID-19 cases continue to soar in India, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan announced that a vaccine would possibly be rolled out in the first quarter of 2021.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.141 Published online 14 September 2020

India has reported 48,46,427 COVID-19 cases and 79,722 deaths till 14 September 2020. The country is currently testing three vaccine candidates. Responding to people's questions on social media, Vardhan spoke about the progress in vaccine development and allayed fears around its safety.

(Excerpts transcribed and lightly edited by Vanita Shrivastava.)

A screenshot of Harsh Vardhan addressing social media questions.
Q. When is India likely to get a vaccine for COVID-19 and what precautions are being taken for its safety?

A. No date has been fixed for the vaccine launch but it may be ready by the first quarter of 2021. The government is taking full precautions in conducting human trials of the vaccine. A National Expert Group on vaccine administration for COVID-19, under the chairmanship of Dr. V. K. Paul, is drawing up a detailed strategy on how to immunise a majority of the population. Issues like vaccine security cost, equity, cold-chain requirements, production timelines are also being discussed intensely.

Q. What about fears regarding the safety of the vaccines?

A. I will be the first to offer myself for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, if people have a trust deficit. A safe and effective vaccine will help in establishing immunity to COVID-19 at a much faster pace as compared to natural infection. We hope that a consensus will emerge in the next few months over the desired level of protective herd immunity in any community.

Q. Who will be the vaccine made available to first?  What would be the price of the vaccine?

A. It is premature to comment on the price of a vaccine which is still under trial. But the government of India will ensure that the vaccine be made available to those who need it the most, irrespective of their paying capacity. The government is considering emergency authorization of COVID-19 vaccination especially in the case of senior citizens and people working in high-risk settings. This shall be done after a consensus has been reached in this regard.

Q. Can you elaborate a bit on the vaccine candidates in development in India?

A. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)  have been proactive in responding to the emerging situation to support the advancement of vaccine candidates. India is actively partnering with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and vaccine trials are at different phases in Indian laboratories (private or public) and hospitals.

Q. Has India become self- reliant in tackling the pandemic?

A. The pandemic has become a turning point for Indian manufacturing. From a time when there were no indigenous manufacturers of personal protective equipment (PPE) with requisite standards, now we have nearly 110. The country is now in a position to not only meet its own demands but also export. The "Make in India" initiatives helped in the manufacture of indigenous diagnostic kits and ventilators. A multi-pronged strategy of promoting indigenous manufacturing and ensuring market availability was adopted with the partnership of various ministries.

Q. How are you ensuring  the affordability of COVID-19 testing? What kind of research is being done on the long term effects of COVID-19?

A. The government has directed all the states and the union territories to fix a reasonable price for COVID-19 treatment in private hospitals. We have also announced a free coverage of up to Rs 5 lakh for COVID patients for those who are eligible under the Ayushman Bharat PMJAY package.The government is  conducting research on the nature of the infection and emerging evidence of the systemic health complications in those who have been infected. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and other research institutions have been asked to undertake research to study the long-term impact of COVID-19. ICMR is establishing a National Clinical Registry on COVID-19 that will provide insights into clinical course of the disease, its spectrum and outcome of patients. Expert group consultations are already going on to review the emerging evidence and generate our own data on organ system specific (respiratory system, renal system, cardiovascular and gastro-intestinal) sequelae of COVID-19.

Q. Looking back do you think you could have done something else to deal with the pandemic?

A. At this stage, all I can say is that we gave it our best.

Nature India’s latest coverage on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic here. More updates on the global crisis here.