Opinion: Dr V M Katoch
A vaccine is a very powerful tool to achieve herd immunity.
Tuesday, January 5, 2021

India reported its first COVID case on January 30, 2019, almost a year back. The virus was new, the disease it was causing could not be diagnosed, there were no medicines. All we knew was the fact that it was a highly contagious virus and was spreading fast. Before it reached India, it had already caused a lot of disruption in the other parts of the world, including China where it first emerged. 

Pandemics can wreak havoc in countries with a large population likes ours. And that’s the reason our Prime Minister promptly acted. The political leadership at the Central and State government level, health authorities, our doctors and other medical professionals, police, and other frontline workers (government, non-government, individuals) in synchronization and effectively brought the spread of the virus under control. We set up exclusive COVID care centers, hospitals, and intensive care units. We addressed the issue of shortage of PPE kits which were important to keep our healthcare workers and frontline workers protected against the infection; We ramped up our testing and tracing capacity. 
 
We are again at an important juncture. While the virus has been tamed, by and large, we cannot afford to become complacent as it is not going to disappear suddenly. A new strain with the potential to spread faster has appeared in the UK, several other countries including India. There are many pockets in the country that are still not exposed to the virus. We don’t know how the virus is going to behave in the coming months. It can come back in small waves, then spread to newer areas and we may also see another severe wave(s). 
 
Pandemics can be contained only when people become resistant to the disease-causing pathogen. There are two ways to acquire herd immunity—one, on exposure to the pathogen people develop antibodies/ immune response in the body and second, the body develops antibodies/ immune response when we give the vaccine. A vaccine is a very powerful tool to achieve herd immunity. We have eradicated diseases such as smallpox by using vaccines against them.
 
So, it is a must that we inform and educate people about the virus and the vaccine (s) which are eventually approved. An effective vaccine plays an important role in containing the spread of any infectious disease. Pandemics require prompt action and I am glad that our scientists have developed so many vaccine candidates in such a short time.  
 
I am sure that they must have used appropriate markers to check the safety of the vaccines they have developed. And our regulators will pass these vaccines for mass use only when they are convinced of their safety and efficacy assessed as per defined criteria. 
 
But at the same time, there is a need to educate people on how a vaccine works, how in some cases a vaccine can lead to an adverse event, and what they should do if that happens. We need to explain to them the scientific process-- why we are giving the vaccine emergency use authorisation, what could be the consequence if we delay the vaccine for six months. It is necessary to provide complete information to people and let them make an informed decision.  
 
For this, we should develop and provide information material – in regional languages both that be read, heard, and seen—which is easily understood by different sections of society. We need to strengthen our communication with panchayats and people on the periphery as it will help us connect with the local communities.  
 
I strongly feel that when people know how science works and are apprised of all facts, they cooperate. 
  
We should roll out the vaccine at a pace at which we can monitor its effects and side-effects and take adequate measures to ensure the safety of our population. We must actively educate the people on how we are going to monitor these effects/ side effects of vaccine(s) so that people participate in this process and remain confident. Though our pharmaco-vigilance mechanism has improved a lot over the years, tracking and addressing an adverse event after a vaccine rollout is critical. Any delay and laxity can have disastrous consequences.   

We are a big country, and rolling out vaccines to our 1.3 billion people is not going to be an easy task. But we are a very determined country--our resources may be less when we want to achieve something, nothing can stop us. Together with the contribution of proven strategies of using masks, physical/social distancing, hygiene, and other prophylactics, vaccine(s) have a great potential role to end the pandemic much more quickly. We must actively participate and support the vaccination drive whenever the government decides to implement it.

(The writer is former Director-General, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and secretary, Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt of India. Views expressed are personal.) 

 

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