On Monday, the Director-General of the ICMR, Dr Balram Bhargava said there was no scientific evidence that supported the need for a booster vaccine against the coronavirus. He added that the completion of the second dose of the vaccine for India’s adult population was the number one priority for the government at this point in time.
India had recently achieved the significant milestone of inoculating over one billion of its citizens with at least one dose. About 82% of the population now has had the first dose of the vaccine while 43% is said to be fully inoculated. Having disbursed as many as 117.63 crore doses in total, India must inoculate 12 crore individuals who are now overdue for the second dose. More than 21.92 crore doses of the vaccine are still lying in stock with the States and union territories. Last week, it was reported that several hospitals were anxious about doses nearing their expiry date, owing to which they were being disbursed at subsidised rates. This presented the quandary of introducing third doses, instead of vaccines being wasted due to expiry.
The distribution of vaccines among the vulnerable members of the population assumes significance when one considers how developed nations are embarking on inoculating people with the third or booster dose of the COVID vaccine. The US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Austria, Italy, and South Korea have begun vaccination drives for the booster shot. Turkey and Brazil have also recently joined this bandwagon. But the question is, do fully vaccinated Indians need to start worrying about the third dose as of now?
If official figures are to go by, the number of cases being reported in India has been on the wane for a while now. On Tuesday, India reported around 7,579 cases, which is said to be the lowest in 543 days. The active cases have also dipped to 1.13 lakh which is once again the lowest in 536 days, as per the Union Health Ministry. India’s active caseload also now accounts for 0.33% of the total infections, which is the lowest since March 2020, and the nation’s recovery rate has surged to 98.32% which is the highest since the beginning of the pandemic in March last year.
As per Gagandeep Kang, a renowned virologist, there are factors pertaining to the exposure of the population to viruses and their variants that need to be considered before disbursing booster shots. For instance, most nations that are now providing booster shots are ones that rolled out doses on a massive scale before the arrival of the Delta variant. Here in India, even as the Delta wave was upon us, a very minimal segment of the population had been inoculated.
By June-July 2021, almost 2/3rd of the population tested seropositive, with a majority of the antibodies being generated in response to a COVID infection. And it’s precisely the reason why the spread of infection and format of inoculation in India are worlds apart when compared to the rest of the planet. This is also why healthcare and vaccination policies formulated in one part of the world cannot be directly replicated in another region, at least when it comes to the pandemic.
In India, the notion of a booster shot might be treated as a luxury as opposed to a necessity, especially when one considers the quantum of people who are still waiting for their first and second doses. Evidence-based recommendations are what India can rely on, in the matter of disbursing booster shots. Although free-market economics dictates that citizens in First World nations with the wherewithal can choose to inoculate themselves with a booster dose, the greater good would be in ensuring everyone on every continent, including Africa, which has been left behind in this vaccine race, gets the basic two shots to start with.