Strange That ICMR Came Up With Timeline For COVID-19 Vaccine, Says Dr Anant Bhan


With the number of COVID-19 cases on the rise, India is eagerly waiting for a vaccine. A lot is being discussed about COVAXIN, a potential vaccine for coronavirus, all thanks to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) which surprised one and all by announcing a timeline for the launch of the vaccine for health use. According to Dr Anant Bhan, a researcher and trainer in the field of public health/ global health and bioethics, the ICMR as well as Bharat Biotech need to explain how they come up with such a guideline.

Here are excerpts of Dr Anant Bhan’s interview with HealthWire.

dr anant bhan
Dr Anant Bhan is a researcher in global health, bioethics and health policy.

Peak Of COVID-19

“There are certain parts of India where the infection has been around for a longer time like Delhi and Mumbai, they have already seen a high number. In other parts of India, especially in rural India, the infection is now spreading more intensely now. So rather than one national peak, it is quite probable that will have a variable set of peaks. So this peak we are talking about is something we might never see. Instead, we might see multiple peaks at the same time in different areas at different times. There is also a possibility of multiple peaks in the same area.”

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Care Should Be Taken Of Non-COVID-19

“More important than the question (when will we see the peak of COVID-19?) is to know that are we prepared to handle the fallout in the sense that what if there are people who require hospitalisation, ICU bed, and other things. Do we have enough infrastructure? That is one of the most important things. Because there are many cases that we are not able to handle. The other thing that needs to be taken care of is non-COVID patients. There are patients who require dialysis, non-communicable disease care, pregnancy care, cancer care, etc. Their care should not be compromised because everything is so focused on COVID-19. The virus has been around for 4-5 months and it is going to stay longer than this. So, for how long we will keep prioritising COVID-19? So we need to find a balance where care to COVID-19 patients is provided but not at the cost of non-COVID-19 patents.”

Lockdown Benefited

We were among the first few countries to go for such lockdown and we have the longest lockdown in the world and that helped us probably in slowing down the progression of the disease. But we have to ask ourselves that could we use the lockdown effectively in terms of enhancing our testing, enhancing our infrastructure? The answer is sort of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Once you implemented lockdown and then decided to go for unlock, you should have been a bit careful about how you did it. Because if people are not following all the norms of social distancing then there are high chances of a high rebound of the number of cases.

Need For More Nuanced Response

A lot of our response in lockdown and during the unlock phase often ends being a law-and-order one done by the police. It’s not a smart a supportive, evidence-based public health response. Policing is a way to respond but then beating people when they go out, blacking faces, etc is not going to build public trust in the longer term. We need a more nuanced response which builds public ownership and public participation.

COVAXIN Highly Unlikely By August 15

As far as COVAXIN is concerned, it is highly unlikely that it would be possible to get those tests involved in vaccine development, safety, as well as the efficacy aspects done by August 15 and data available so that it can be made available for public use. It’s almost impossible to do that. Rather, we should be focusing on doing good quality research. It’s important that we promote Indian science and research and it’s good that Indian agencies are participating in that endeavour but then it is important to ensure they follow the proper scientific protocol. Yes, there are certain things that can be expedited so that the time frame can be made shorter but it cannot be that short that we will be able to do it by August 15.

ICMR NeedsTo Explain

“There are a lot of surprises coming in from ICMR which has a long history in research and has done maximum studies in the past and Bharat Biotech as well which has been doing a lot of vaccine manufacturing. It seems a bit strange that the two agencies which have a lot of experience in vaccine development could have come up with such a guideline.

Why that was done is something that the ICMR needs to explain and won’t go in the politics of that. But it’s strange that a scientific agency has come up with a timeline. This is surprising for anyone who has looked the way a vaccine is developed.”

Public Engagement Extremely Crucial

Public education and public engagement are extremely crucial. There are areas of India where this had some success and Kerala and north-east are good examples where there is a lot of adherence to these kinds of public health measures. In terms of what the government needs to do is that now things need to be decided on the local level response rather than everything being decided on the national or state level. Second important thing is that testing needs to be enhanced so the further spread of the infection can be prevented. Also, it is very important to try everything to reduce the transmission to rural areas so that we don’t have a major crisis over a few months.

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