Between hope and cynicism – COVID-19 Vaccines in the context of the Indian sub-continent

Unprecedented is a word which gets thrown around way too often and at times callously. But for once, there is no better word to describe this pandemic than just that, unprecedented. Having lived in Kashmir though, no amount of catastrophe seems to unnerve the people here. Because living in a cauldron of a place like Kashmir is no less than defiance. Defiance in the face of an onslaught politically and militarily. And defiance is what the world has shown against the pandemic in one way or another, at times prudent and other times, not so much.

Vaccines has for long been portrayed as a contentious issue amongst health care professionals but truth be told, the skepticism often displayed against the very idea of vaccination is part of a fringe. By and large, health care professionals have seen the dividends of vaccination in front of their own eyes and only a handful would argue against it. That said, with a slew of vaccines against coronavirus being rolled out from the powers that be, the amount of uncertainty amongst people has never been more palpable.

India’s drug regulating agencies have approved the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, Covishield as well as an indigenously developed Covaxin for what it calls “restricted emergency use” in the country. The latter, Covaxin is certainly a cause for worry and seems to be rushed. Its efficacy data is still up in the air because of the yet to be completed trials (the Phase 3 trial is still unfinished and started in November, 2020). Data from its Phase 2 trial with a follow-up on its Phase 1 trial was published on a non-peer reviewed website. All of these pose serious questions as to the wisdom behind rolling out an indigenously developed vaccine with no substantially rigorous data backing it up. Perhaps it is another attempt at populist measures by a right leaning government which has developed quite a knack for that.

India has reported more than 10 million COVID-19 cases and there is every reason to believe that the actual number is far higher. The reporting mechanisms in India are not robust and meticulous. The country hopes to inoculate 300 million of its 1.35 billion people in the first six to eight months of 2021.

The roll out of vaccines has also become an instrument in geopolitics of this volatile region and international diplomacy. India has sought to mend ties with neighboring Bangladesh whereby Bangladesh signed a deal with the Serum Institute of India for 30 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Whereas India has expectedly not tied up with China for the vaccine, its neighbor Pakistan has. Pakistan’s cabinet committee has decided to initially purchase 1.2 million doses of the vaccine from the Chinese company Sinopharm which will be provided free of cost to frontline workers in the first quarter of 2021. China has made huge strides with vaccines from its two front runners – Sinovac and Sinopharm already making their way abroad. What is unique about Sinovac’s vaccine CoronaVac is that it is an inactivated vaccine. Unlike Moderna and Pfizer vaccines developed in the West which are m-RNA vaccines (which means a part of the coronavirus’ genetic code is injected into the body, triggering the body to begin making viral proteins, thereby stimulating the body’s immune system), CoronaVac works by using killed viral particles to expose the body’s immune system to the virus.

With all of this happening in a state of flux, people on the ground remain in a predicament, somewhere between hope and a touch of cynicism.

  • Dr. Junaid Ahangar (Resident Doctor, Srinagar, Kashmir)
  • @AmbivalentRants on Twitter