Do a good jabNepali authorities must be firm in making their choices clear.
The fight against the Covid-19 pandemic has entered a new phase with several countries in the world already beginning the inoculation process against the novel coronavirus. Nepal has been a bit late to the party; nevertheless, it has begun talks with various institutions and governments for procuring vaccines to inoculate 12 million people initially, although no deal has been signed with any institution or country yet. Nepal hopes to procure a significant chunk of the vaccines from India since it will be the best option in terms of logistics. But the more important question is whether the vaccines to be procured from India will be among the best. After all, the quality of the vaccines and their efficacy matter the most.
The Serum Institute of India is producing Covishield, the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. Covishield, which has 70 percent efficacy, is the most affordable as well as suitable for Nepal as per our existing storage capacity. This is why Nepali health experts have vouched for Covishield. However, officials at the Ministry of Health and Population worry India may coax Nepal into using Covaxin rather than Covishield that it prefers.
Last week, Covaxin, being developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, received emergency approval in a controlled clinical trial mode, but it ran into controversy right from the beginning due to lack of efficacy data from Phase-III trials. The death of a 45-year-old volunteer from Bhopal nine days after taking a Covaxin jab raised fresh questions over the vaccine, although Bharat Biotech has said the death was not related to the vaccine or placebo. The doubts about Covaxin’s efficacy got further traction when a top Indian virologist, Gagandeep Kang, said she would not take the vaccine unless its efficacy data was made available.
The indigenously produced vaccine had been approved, the virologist claimed, by flouting the Indian vaccine regulator's guideline that requires 50 percent efficacy on humans for emergency approval, whereas the company is just running the Phase-III trials and the efficacy data will take weeks, if not months, to come. The concern raised by Nepali health experts and authorities about a vaccine that is the least favoured in the manufacturing country itself is, therefore, not without some merit. Even if Indian authorities attempt to push Covaxin for Nepal as against its preferred option of Covishield, Nepali authorities must be firm in making their choices clear. The least Nepal must do is to independently verify the efficacy of the vaccines before procuring them.
Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali's visit to India later this week must bring much-needed clarity on Nepal's plans on procuring the vaccines from India. It is also an opportunity for both Nepal and India to begin mending ties through cooperation in the inoculation drive. The Nepali side must present itself strongly when it comes to dealing with India in the procurement process and must go for the vaccines with a minimum risk factor. However, it is prudent for Nepal to continue holding simultaneous talks with other institutions in various countries to zero in on the best option available in terms of immunogenicity, safety and efficacy.