More than a month after the Government of India denied shortages in vaccine supply and celebrated ‘Tika Utsav’, the truth is out. Per day vaccination numbers dropped in May 2021 even when 18-44-year-olds were added to the vaccination queue. The approval of Phase II/III vaccine trial for 2-18-year-olds is a knee-jerk reflex to the theory that a third wave will infect children the most.
The company seeking this approval is Bharat Biotech, which hasn’t publicly shared data from its adult trials yet. Shifting the focus on vaccinating children is a misstep when the need of the hour is adult vaccinations.
Approving a clinical trial for vaccinating children is a welcome step. But in the context of COVID-19, any such decision can go downhill very quickly.
First of all, the trial will recruit only 500 participants, which is a very low number for a Phase III trial. Pfizer, whose vaccine the USFDA approved for 12-18-year-olds, had recruited close to 3000 participants in this age group in its trial. On its part, Pfizer published the results of clinical trials in adults in December 2020. Bharat Biotech is publishing its Phase III trial results in tranches when over two crore doses have been publicly administered.
Bharat Biotech has listed only two sites for these new trials. It is likely to wrap up the trial at record speed and seek another ‘Emergency Use Authorisation’ without publicising any data.
Let’s Vaccinate the Bread-Winners First
There is already a beeline of individuals who want to get vaccinated since 1 May. While public interest in getting vaccinated is a good thing, the addition of a new category of individuals to be vaccinated will mess up supplies even further. Parents would rush to get their children vaccinated through the private channel, paying full price for the vaccine.
Currently, the demand far exceeds the supply, and the vaccine is a rival good. For every child vaccinated, there would be one individual in the 18-44 year group, who will not be. That individual could be the only bread earner of the family and risking himself every day to eke out a living. In contrast, a fully vaccinated child would attend an online class sitting in the comfort of his home.
In the past, the government has opposed opening up vaccinations to the general public citing supply constraints and explained its policy of vaccination. Now, it seems to be disregarding its own policy and increasing the strain on-demand, without resolving the supply issue. The decision to allow the trial had been pending for a while and could have remained in abeyance till the vaccine supplies were restored.
To Protect Kids, Parents Must Be Vaccinated First
With over 36 percent of its population fully vaccinated, the US can look at vaccinating children and reopening schools later in the year. India has barely managed to vaccinate 3 percent of its population with two doses. The recent decision to delay the second dose of Covishield to 12-16 weeks will divert some doses to those who are unvaccinated.
But to tide over the pandemic, we need more and more people who are fully vaccinated. These are the people who need to go outside to work, run chores for households, and also keep the economy running. Children, on the other hand, are at minimum risk currently, since they are not even stepping out.
If one wants to protect children, ensure that parents who are going out every day are vaccinated.
Aiming for child vaccinations is catering to the healthcare demand of the society than the public health. Bharat Biotech could use the 1000-odd doses to be used in this trial to vaccinate 500 frontline workers. After four months of vaccinations, only 37 percent had been fully vaccinated and these are people at most risk.
Imagine if Private Sector Vaccinates Students Before Teachers — Why This is Detrimental
As a private player, Bharat Biotech is moving to secure its place in the market. Its current production capacity is far lower than the Serum Institute of India’s. SII has massive global commitments that it is also reneging on already.
As production capacity increases over the next few months, SII will use it to fulfil contractual obligations. Since SII does not have the bandwidth to test its vaccine in children, Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin will have a monopoly in the segment. It will make runaway profits targeting the culpability of Indian parents and charging the maximum price of the vaccine.
It would not be strange to see Indian parents queue up to get their children vaccinated when they themselves haven’t been. Even after a year of the pandemic, only some Indian states have included teachers in their lists of essential workers to be vaccinated. The private sector will end up vaccinating the children even before the teachers are.
While online learning is no substitute for school-based learning, vaccinating children should be part of a larger plan to reopen schools which includes vaccinations for teachers as well as non-teaching staff.
Low number of vaccinations, ad-hoc decisions, and rush to reopen is what led us to the second wave. Let’s not repeat them again.
Let’s vaccinate the 18-44-year-olds properly and reduce the transmission of the disease. COVID-19 vaccinations for children can wait.
(A molecular biologist by day and a blogger by night, Ameya Paleja writes about genetics, microbes and the future of technology at Coffee Table Science. Scientific research and policy making are also areas of his interest. You can tweet to him at @ameyapaleja. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)