Recently, the World Health Organisation declared that COVID-19, which tragically claimed millions of lives worldwide over the past three years, is no longer a public health emergency of international concern.
This announcement brings a glimmer of relief and hope as the world emerges from the devastating grip of the pandemic. However, as we take stock of the damage wrought by the virus, it is clear that we cannot simply return to business as usual.
The pandemic exacerbated the vulnerability and preparedness of the health system.
But it has also provided us with a unique opportunity to rebuild and strengthen our health systems in a more resilient, responsive, and equitable way.
Vaccine R&D The Road To Being Self-Sufficient
In the face of relentless challenges presented by an ever-evolving virus, the pandemic served as a poignant reminder of the pivotal role played by science, research, and the investments we make in them.
These invaluable contributions have empowered us to bravely face the crisis head-on, fostering the development and production of vaccines that have safeguarded not just our nation but also offered crucial aid to 180 countries across the globe.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial to acknowledge areas for improvement – unquestionably, research and development serve as the cornerstone of our long-term stability – especially considering the size of our population, as we strive for self-sufficiency.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has embarked on an ambitious mission known as the "100 days challenge."
To save countless lives, the goal is to swiftly develop safe and effective vaccines in response to disease outbreaks. To accomplish this, we need to prioritise the development of vaccine prototypes for specific viral families based on their potential to cause pandemics or epidemics.
The rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine(s) exemplifies the feasibility of this approach. Moreover, this development serves as a compelling impetus to accelerate vaccine development for other diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and dengue.
Moving forward, it is crucial to establish target product profiles and benchmarks for the development of vaccines.
Further, to be able to optimise R&D efforts, it’s imperative that the regulatory processes are harmonised and respond to evidence proactively.
For instance, during the pandemic, our regulatory procedures quickly adapted, granting emergency authorisation for vaccines.
Through streamlined processes, collaboration, and adaptability to evolving evidence, we developed and rolled out vaccines in an unprecedented timeframe – in months instead of years.
By further streamlining, reducing delays, and globally harmonising protocols through forums such as the G20, we can expedite approvals not just for vaccines, but also for other medical countermeasures – a key focus for India’s G20 Presidency.
The WHO's initiation of regulatory process harmonisation is a positive step that the Indian government should embrace by revising its Drugs and Cosmetics Act to align with internationally recognized frameworks and guidelines.
Reaching the Last Mile Through Digital Technology
In any immunisation programme, reaching the most vulnerable and marginalised populations is paramount.
This necessitates a robust surveillance, tracking, and recording system to ensure that no one is left behind.
The remarkable CoWIN platform emerged as a game-changer, revolutionising our vaccination strategy by enabling tracking and offering vital insights into uptake.
As we embrace the transition to the U-WIN platform, which serves as the centralised hub for immunisation services, updating vaccination status, tracking delivery outcomes, planning routine immunisation sessions, and generating comprehensive reports on antigen-wise coverage, among other functionalities, it is crucial to draw upon the invaluable lessons learned from COVID-19 vaccinations to fortify routine immunisation efforts.
This knowledge should be used not only to minimise wastage but also to inform our allocation and utilisation in the country and globally.
By harnessing the power of advanced surveillance and tracking systems, we can usher in a new era of precise and equitable vaccine deployment, ensuring that every individual receives the protection they deserve.
Our unwavering commitment to continuous improvement will shape a future where data, innovation, and a steadfast dedication to health drive immunisation efforts for all.
(CK Mishra is former Secretary, Government of India, and Co-founder, Partnerships for Impact. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. This article is part of MOMENTUM Routine Immunisation Transformation & Equity project's endeavours to strengthen immunisation efforts.)