The obduracy of the World Health Organization (WHO) in denying approval to made-in-India vaccine Covaxin smacks of prejudice not just against India but the entire third world.
It is nothing short of vaccine apartheid. India is still seen as a third-world country. This prejudice dictates the need for Covaxin to undergo a higher degree of scrutiny before being approved for universal use. This process of delaying approval has been going on since April 2021. This delay provoked Bharat Biotech to seek an emergency use listing six months ago. On July 9, 2021, the company submitted all the required data, and the decision on its approval was expected within six weeks.
It has been more than 15 weeks now, and after multiple reviews, still no approval for Covaxin. WHO seeks more clarification from Bharat Biotech and has extended the deadline for approval to November 3. All that we have been getting from WHO are dates and more dates resembling the classic Sunny Deol dialogue, “tareekh pe tareekh.”
This delay comes at a significant cost to India. More than 100 million doses of Covaxin have been administered. This means at least 50 million people have got the mandated double dose to be considered fully vaccinated. But since Covaxin has not got WHO approval, these people cannot travel to other countries for jobs or studies.
Corporate workers, Indian students, and workers who returned to India following Covid lockdown cannot return to their jobs in foreign countries because Covaxin is not approved by WHO Indian tourists going abroad are stuck as they are not allowed into foreign country. Covaxin has been administered to millions of people in India including the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
WHO is refusing to approve and has pushed the decision to next week. Did other vaccines have to go through such rigorous trials? The sheer obstinacy of WHO in refusing approval is baffling to say the least. Every time they meet the Indian vaccine manufacturers they demand more data and delay the approval. This has been almost following a set pattern.
On the other hand, India contends that all the requisite data has been furnished, whereas WHO keeps asking for more. This raises the question of whether the delay is deliberate. Is it about procedure or prejudice? Is there a mala fide intention in preventing approval for the vaccine? There is a lot of money to be made in this as the whole world needs to get vaccinated. Those vaccines like Moderna, Pfizer, Sinopharm, and Sinovac, which have got the approval, are raking in the moolah.
Chinese companies manufacturing Corona vaccines have got approvals in the stipulated time. They are selling it in the international market even though their efficacy is only 51% as certified by WHO itself. Indian companies are being deprived of this opportunity. Is this fair? There were huge allegations against the present chief of WHO of being a handmaiden of the Chinese government. He notoriously did not allow proper investigation of the origin of the Corona virus. Had that been done China could have been implicated and China might have had to pay trillions of dollars in damages. Clearly, money has changed hands.
Did WHO made all other vaccines go through the same standards and rigorous procedure for approval? Why is this treatment being meted out to Covaxin only? What data did the Chinese vaccine makers provide? China being a communist country is not known for transparency.
It has been known to fudge data on its economy in order to portray an image that it is comfortable with. There is no reason to believe it would not have done the same in case of the vaccine. Then how is it that WHO relies on Chinese data and gives the go ahead to Sinovac? How long did the approvals for Moderna and Pfizer take? Is the WHO deliberately blocking Covaxin?
How does this impact the millions of people who have taken this jab? Many countries have approved Covaxin, Oman being the latest to do so. But WHO will not oblige us.
In the post-pandemic world, vaccines are the new ticket to freedom. You need a vaccine certificate to travel, to dine at a restaurant and in some cases a vaccine certificate to get a job. Vaccines have become key to opportunities and freedom. Vaccines are the key to economic recovery following the worldwide lockdown due to the pandemic.
Countries which were able to vaccinate their population faster were the ones that were able to open up and their economies bounced back from the recession following the pandemic lockdown. Hence vaccines are the key to speedy recovery both from a health perspective as well as economically.
At the height of the pandemic, some vaccines were given emergency use authorization keeping the dire situation in mind. The technical term for this is emergency use listing or EUL. This is what Covaxin has been asking for but it has not been provided. So far seven vaccines have got WHO approval—Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Covishield, Johnson&Johnson, Sinopharm and Sinovac. The one name missing from this list is the home-grown Covaxin.
The WHO still has not approved it which is a big worry for Indians. If it approves Covaxin it will be like a global recognition. Most countries will follow suit. They can import Covaxin. They can welcome tourists and travelers who got Covaxin. In that sense, it is a ticket to freedom. The WHO is dragging its feet and asking for additional clarifications.
The WHO contends that it is about technicality and no corners would be cut as far as efficacy of the vaccine is concerned. There has to be a thorough evaluation to ensure the vaccine is “safe and effective.” There is a lot of ambiguity in the process with no transparency at all.
Guyana, Iran, Mauritius, Mexico, Nepal, Philippines, Zimbabwe, Paraguay and India already use Covaxin as protection against Corona virus. Estonia and Greece recognize it for travel. This wide usage is itself a certificate of efficacy and safety of Covaxin. Other vaccines did not have to wait so long.
Pfizer got approval within six weeks after submitting data and Moderna and AstraZeneca got approval within nine weeks after submitting their data. Sinopharm and Sinovac got approval even though their data suggests efficacy to be borderline. Why then is there a delay for Covaxin. Did Bharat Biotech not submit enough data. They say they did. The government of India attributes this to procedural delay. All said and done, we can only keep our fingers crossed and wait for November 3rd to see the final result.
Edited by Anupama Roy