New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government Thursday took the decision to increase the recommended gap between two doses of Covishield to 12-16 weeks instead of the earlier 6-8 weeks, based on real life experience that shows that a longer gap reduces breakthrough infections.
Speaking at the daily press briefing, NITI Aayog Member (Health) Dr V.K. Paul said, “Our technical committee (National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) felt that data show that increased interval breakthrough infections increased in less interval. We cannot accept unnecessary risks for our population.”
He added, “NEGVAC (National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19) has accepted this. It seems safer to have it at 12-16 weeks. This review happens periodically. Now we have real life experience from the UK. That data and WHO experts who were present in the meeting, felt that by science we can confidently take this decision without extra risk to our countrymen.”
The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has also accepted this recommendation of the Covid Working Group for extension of the gap between the first and second doses of Covishield vaccine to 12-16 weeks.
“This is a science based decision. The earlier guidance was based on data available till then. The initial dosing schedule was 4-6 weeks. As more data came in, secondary analysis showed that if we increase duration there is an advantage…” said Paul.
“I have to say that NTAGI is a standing committee that has been there. It is independent and we must respect these institutions. Though the UK and WHO recommend 12 weeks, many countries did not do that… UK even changed Pfizer dosage to 3 months against company advice,” added Paul, who is the co-chair of NEGVAC.
The matter was discussed in NTAGI over four meetings, in some of which there was also representation from the Oxford University where the vaccine was originally developed, said Dr Balram Bhargava, Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research.
NTAGI has also recommended that the vaccine be made available to pregnant women and that if a person has an infection they should delay the next vaccine dose by six months. “We can give you the scientific reasoning behind these decisions next week,” Bhargava added.
51.6 crore vaccine doses procured
So far, India has procured 51.6 crore vaccine doses which includes procurement from the PM CARES fund and from GAVI Covax, and the Government of India procurement for phases II and III of the vaccination drive, and also procurement by states and the private sector after 1 May.
Of the phase II procurement of 12 crore doses, 86 per cent has been received. Supplies for phase III will start from May to July. States have procured 16 crore doses for this phase.
Paul said 7.3 crore doses are available for the month of May.
He also refuted allegations that the Government of India is blocking supply to states by manufacturers. He also countered the Delhi government’s claim that the state has run out of Covaxin.
“Delhi received 75,000 doses of free Covaxin from the Government of India channel, the state procured one lakh doses and the private sector got 20,000 doses,” he said.
The NITI Aayog member also gave an overview of the expected vaccine availability in the second half of the year, claiming that over 200 crore vaccine doses would become available by the year-end.
“Yes this is an optimistic projection. It is possible this does not happen. Apart from the three licensed vaccines, Biological E should start producing soon. Zydus DNA vaccines are in the last stage of phase III, at least 5 crore doses are expected… Next week Sputnik will be available, they will also start manufacturing by July,” he said.
“Between August and December, we will have 216 crore doses manufactured in India. Be proud to say that 2 billion doses in a matter of 6 months will be made in India. There is no doubt that vaccine will be available for all,” he said.
“There is asymmetry the world over… it takes time to get out of this phase. Look at the big countries, 46 per cent in the US got at least one dose, in Germany at least one dose has been given to 34 per cent population,” Paul said.
He also claimed that for vaccine manufacturers that have clearance from regulatory authorities like the US Food and Drug Administration, Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), or the Japanese or Russian regulators, import licence “would take two days”.
“We are constantly in touch with Pfizer, Moderna, J&J. We had asked if they wanted to manufacture here, they said we will do our own way and will see about availability in Q3. For Covaxin, I am proud to say that company itself reached out to others (for manufacturing),” Paul said.
‘Had predicted second wave’
As the Modi government faces national and international heat for its failure to prepare for the second wave, Paul, who has been one of the most important members of India’s Covid strategy team, claimed that warnings had been issued several times.
“We kept warning several times from this platform about the possibility of a Covid second wave and the need to maintain Covid-appropriate behaviour,” he said.
“The prime minister himself had warned about it on 17 March without creating panic. Nobody can predict the size of a peak — the virus behaves in unexpected ways,” he said in reply to a question about why the government had missed the second wave.
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