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 On vaccination, trust scientists and government

Vaccines protect us, and the greater the gap between doses, the greater the benefit and protection

It is not easy to develop a vaccine. It is a complex process that often takes a decade or more. On most occasions, it requires the participation of public and private entities. A vaccine takes time because of the multiple stages it goes through — from the exploratory stage to the pre-clinical stage to several phases of trials that take several years — before it is certified safe. Also, vaccines, in general, are more thoroughly tested than non-vaccine drugs.

The coronavirus brought vaccine discovery and launch to the centrestage in 2020. History is replete with several vaccine launches that helped deal with diseases from polio to tetanus to measles and chicken pox.

The Covid-19 vaccine will go down as one of the fastest vaccine discoveries and launches in human history. To make this possible, scientists have worked round the clock. Regulators have fast-tracked approvals and cleared all time lags at every stage of development. This does not mean that protocols were compromised. It also does not mean that the efficacy is questionable. Let us not forget we eradicated smallpox with the strategy of ring vaccination wherein anyone exposed to a smallpox patient was traced and vaccinated quickly, effectively preventing its spread. Every scientific discovery at the time of its launch seems unbelievable. Sceptics doubt its veracity. Time has proved them wrong.

No one can deny vaccination protects people and those around them from a particular disease. For optimum efficacy, some vaccines require multiple doses, given weeks or months apart. This is needed for developing and maturing antibodies.

A recent report in The Lancet pointed out that a longer gap between the first and the second dose of Covishield vaccines helps increase its efficacy rate to as high as 90 per cent. Earlier, the recommended interval was 4-6 weeks, whereas the Lancet report suggested a 6-12 week gap for the vaccine to be more effective.

As per the basic principles of vaccination, there is no maximum interval set for taking multiple doses. However, many recommend a minimum three-week period for inducing the immune response. It takes as long as eight weeks for the antibodies to become fully functional.

We tend to forget that vaccines protect us, and the greater the gap between doses, greater is the benefit and protection. Critics and sceptics attribute different reasons and motives to widening the dosage intervals of the Covishield vaccine. Yes, the government has revised the gap twice in the last three months. It was first enhanced from 28 days to six to eight weeks in March and quite recently to 12-16 weeks. This revision was done as per the suggestion by the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI).

There is evidence to substantiate this suggestion and the decision. The UK and Canada, two countries that are administering Covishield, have widened the gap to four months. In fact, Canada has widened the gap to four months for all the vaccines. Even in the UK, citizens are being administered the second dose of the vaccine only now. But we have already started seeing a decline in deaths in that country after the first dose. The WHO too recommends widening the gap. It is unfortunate that when such decisions are taken in India, they are termed as political gimmickry.

I would like to reiterate while vaccination is one of the many steps that we all need to take to protect ourselves and the people around us, it is not a licence for us to discard masks, social distancing or maintain hand hygiene. We should continue to follow these protocols until the virus is eradicated.

The government is doing everything possible to stop the pandemic. The vaccine plays a significant role in our endeavour. Evidence shows there is only a 5 per cent chance for someone testing positive for Covid-19 post-vaccination. The government understands making decisions about their own health and vaccination is a difficult task for citizens. I urge you to trust the scientists and your government. I would like to recall what Louis Pasteur once said, “it is within the power of man to eradicate the infection from the earth”. Let us all focus our efforts towards eradicating Covid-19. Together, we can.

This column first appeared in The Indian Express (print edition) on May 24, 2021 under the title ‘Inoculate against politics’. The writer is the Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka. He is an alumnus of Kasturba Medical College, Manipal

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