Nikunja Bihari Sahu

While over 40 crore vaccine shots have been administered to adults in the country, inoculation drive for children against Covid-19 is yet to take off and is long due. The education sector has been hit badly by the pandemic with school children missing their physical classroom sessions for nearly one and a half years. Although some states are embarking on ambitious plans for reopening schools in a restricted manner, parents have expressed their concerns in sending their wards to schools.

Availability of a dependable vaccine for children will be a milestone achievement in bolstering the education sector in the country as this would not only ensure the safety of children, but also facilitate reopening of schools in a graded manner. This would also boost the confidence of parents in letting their wards to go to schools.  It is widely speculated that the impact of a possible third wave on children due to the new variants is likely to be more severe compared with the first or the second wave. Hence, the timely availability of a vaccine for children is the only way out of the present situation.

Some western countries have gone ahead with their vaccination programme for children. The US Food and Drug Authority and Canada’s drug regulatory authorities have recently given the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine emergency use authorisation for children. This vaccine requires two shots to be given 21 days apart. Similarly, the European Union’s regulatory authority, the European Medicines Agency, has recommended authorising the Moderna vaccine for use in children aged between 12 and 17 and, according to research conducted on more than 3,700 children of 12 to 17 age group, the shots indeed produced substantial antibody response.

Russia, the manufacturer of Sputnik V vaccine, has also tested a nasal spray version suitable for children aged 8-12 and plans to launch the new product in September.

In India, the situation is fast picking up momentum and the government plans to rope in indigenous manufacturers to ensure adequate and timely supply of quality vaccine to fulfill its dream of inoculating its younger citizens. In India, two vaccine candidates, in particular, are in the race for completing the formalities for launching their shots for children.

Ahmedabad-based Zydus Cadila, which is developing a DNA plasmid-based vaccine, has already concluded its trial for the 12-18 age group, and subject to statutory provisions, the vaccine might be available soon in the near future. The company has already applied to the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) for emergency use authorisation for its vaccine ZyCoV-D, which it claims would be effective for both adults and children. The vaccine will be the first needle-free shot to be administered as an intra-dermal injection using a spring-powered jet injector. The efficacy of the vaccine is reported to be 66.6 per cent against the symptomatic and 100 per cent against the moderate or severe patients based on the interim analysis of its phase III trial data. The vaccine contains a DNA plasmid vector that carries the gene encoding the spike protein of the virus. As with other DNA vaccines, the recipient’s cells then produce the spike protein, triggering an effective immunogenic response against the virus.

Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech is going through its clinical trial phases (phases II and III) for its nasal spray for children and the data for the results is likely to be available by September. Similarly, Pune-based Serum Institute of India is all set to start phase II and phase III paediatric trials of its Covovax in 920 children (460 each in 12-17 year and 2-11 year groups) from next month. The primary objective of the study is to assess the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine among children. If everything goes well, a first-hand vaccine for children is expected by early October.

Going by the 80 per cent coverage strategy, the government would have to ensure supply of enough vaccines to cover its 104 million strong children population against the disease. The exercise would, therefore, require at least 208 million doses of a two-dose vaccine. Hence, it is going to be herculean task for the government to bring back the lost glory of children’s education in the country.

The writer is Education Officer, Regional Science Centre, Bhopal. Views are personal.

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