'I am not sure yet if healthy children really need the COVID vaccine,' said India's top virologist and member of the government's COVID-19 Working Group NTAGI, Dr Gagandeep Kang.
As the Subject Expert Committee (SEC) of the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) recommends the conditional use of Covaxin among children in the age group of 2-18, and the final nod by the DCGI awaited, the conversation has shifted to whether the vaccines are needed for children, who should get it first, when will they be rolled out, and finally, where's the data?
In an interview with The Quint, Dr Gagandeep Kang said there is sufficient data in terms of adult trials of 25,000 people and over 500 children for the SEC to conclude the vaccine is safe. She said that while Bharat Biotech, the makers of Covaxin, were under no obligation to share details of the clinical trials, the data should be made available for wider scrutiny.
Who Should Get the Vaccine? Will There be a Priority Group Among Children?
The government has previously said that the roll out of vaccines for children will begin from October with priority given to the most vulnerable among them.
Dr Kang said that while the approvals will come in, it doesn't mean we will necessarily roll out the vaccines for children the same way we did for adults. There is still a significant adult population yet to be vaccinated.
"Should the vulnerable children be vaccinated first? I do think we need to consider that. Vaccinating children with comorbidities with an inactivated vaccine should be generally safe. The immune response may not be the best, but it will offer some protection," she added.
She stressed that any rollout has to be accompanied by very strict monitoring to measure the immune response in children to see if the vaccine works for this specific group.
But on the question of vaccinating all healthy children, Dr Kang said,
"We've got 60 percent coverage among children who have not received the vaccine at all. Do we really need to vaccinate kids who may already have had exposure? We don't have enough data in India on how healthy children react to COVID-19. Anecdotally they do really well. Even if we have enough vaccines, I still have my doubts on the benefits of vaccinating healthy children."Dr Gagandeep Kang
'The first Vaccines May Not be the Best for Healthy Children'
Dr Kang said that India's done very well when it comes to vaccinating a large number of people in a short period of time. "Despite what people say on daily numbers, India's vaccination programme has been a huge success."
She said it was time for India to show leadership and share its vaccines with the world. We need to prioritise vaccines for all adults.
"By the time all adults are vaccinated, we may have better data on how these vaccines have done on children from other countries. For children who have a long life ahead of them, the first vaccines may not be the best. We may find that there may be a second version of an mRNA vaccine that does better. We may find that combinations of different platforms may perform better in children."
"I would like to see better data before we decide to immunise our entire cohort of under 18 year olds."
On lack of Publicly Available Data
Dr Kang said that while the company was under no obligation to share the data with the public, she has her personal bias towards having as much data as possible available for scrutiny.
But she also stressed on the need for more crucial data, which is the real world effectiveness data of these vaccines.
Pointing out that India's COVID tracker now tracks deaths due to the vaccine, but it doesn't distinguish between the vaccines themselves and causes attributed are not properly investigated.