New Delhi: As Covid vaccine trials enter a defining stage worldwide, Indian authorities have started preliminary discussions on a wide range of issues, from logistics to ethical questions, to set the stage for a smooth supply and effective use of a vaccine when it is ready.
Multiple ministries and authorities across India’s science and technology spectrum are involved in these discussions, said functionaries involved in the process, adding that the country’s Covid management team doesn’t expect a vaccine to be available before early next year.
“At least two meetings have taken place on preparing the ground for the first vaccine. There will be more talks in the next few weeks. There are complex issues” said a government official involved in the discussions who asked not to be named.
The authorities are carefully watching the development of at least nine vaccines—including two Chinese candidates— of which the brightest hope is the candidate of Oxford AstraZeneca. The Pune-based, Adar Poonawalla-led Serum Institute has partnered with AstraZeneca for manufacturing the vaccine in India. Human trials on this vaccine (combined phase2/3 trials) are to begin in India next month.
“The internal discussions have started so that we are fully prepared and to avoid any last-moment glitches. One of the key issues is distribution in remote areas such as North East India and how we have to set up large-scale cold storage facilities in such areas,” added the official.
Data, analysis of Covid cases across the country, and information technology and scientific inputs will go into these discussions that deals with a pandemic situation which has already seen more than 1.39 million cases in India.
Discussions have also begun on how to distribute the vaccine — whether it should only be given through government hospitals and public health care facilities at the district level, or if private hospitals should also be involved.
While some countries, including the US have struck large deals with companies developing vaccines (the US has, for hundreds of millions of doses), India is yet to finalise any such agreements.
The authorities are also clear that the entire production from Serum Institute can’t be consumed domestically. India, the largest of the SAARC countries, also has an obligation to see that its neighbours get a share of the most-coveted vaccine. “This again, brings us to helping neighbouring countries to set up logistics and infrastructure to distribute the vaccine.”
Like many other countries, India too has allowed accelerated trials, especially in the animal toxicity tests—the stepping stone for human trials—for a faster development of vaccines that generally takes years to develop.
Government functionaries are also debating the issue of who should be the beneficiaries for the first batch of vaccine—frontline health workers or the country’s aged population.
“This question has triggered a huge debate worldwide. We have to carefully make this sensitive decision,” said another functionary who asked not to be named, adding that no final decision has been arrived at.
Talks of creating a central database of all those who are vaccinated across states are also going on.
With the vaccine candidate of China’s Sinovac Biotech also reaching the third stage of human trials Indian officials are hoping the country doesn’t have to depend on China with whom relatons are at an all-time low right now. “We just hope such a situation doesn’t arrive when we have no other choice but to depend on the Chinese,” the first official said.
It’s for this reason that officials are closely following the progress of two indigenous vaccines, Covaxin and ZyCov-D, developed by Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila respectively. Both are in Stage 1 of trials.