All India Peoples Science Network also urged the Union government to take responsibility for the second-wave than blaming people and the states.

A health worker holding a syringe of COVID-19 vaccineImage for representation. fernandozhiminaicela/Pixabay
Coronavirus Coronavirus Thursday, April 15, 2021 - 13:48

“India is well and truly into a brutal second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the All India Peoples Science Network, a national federation of science networks, as it issued a statement, urging the Union government to accept responsibility for the current situation than merely blaming the people and the states. The network also urged the Union government to oppose the “misguided vaccine nationalism” that India is exporting vaccines without prioritising domestic needs, and to continue exporting COVID-19 vaccines. AIPSN also urged the government to urgently address a series of issues — the COVID-19 vaccine shortage reported by many states in the country; expand gene sequencing to understand the role of variants; increase testing, tracing and surveillance; ensure vaccine equity; and ramp up vaccine production and availability.

AIPSN released the statement on Wednesday in the wake of the Union government blaming the people and states for the second wave of COVID-19 in the country. “This serves only to enable the Centre to evade responsibility for the present situation and gives itself an excuse for future inaction or failure. Learning from the first wave, it is important that measures are taken through a partnership between the Centre and states, with the Centre providing evidence-based guidelines and financial as well as other assistance, with the Centre not making efforts to shift blame to states while withholding essential supplies and co-operation on many fronts,” the statement said.

It must be noted that despite the alarmingly rising cases, there have been several instances where people have been gathering for religious festivals and other political events without wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance. Amid the second wave, several states have also been reporting vaccine shortage as India is currently vaccinating senior citizens and those above 45 years of age. There have also been requests from several medical experts to widen the vaccine coverage across all age groups. 

AIPSN has also said that seeing vaccines as a “silver bullet to tackle the pandemic” is a “seriously mistaken tendency.” “India’s vaccination per capita rank is well below the global average. There is much information available, albeit scattered and mostly anecdotal at present that a class divide is emerging in India’s vaccination drive, in cities as well as in many rural areas in the country. These deficiencies need to be urgently rectified by taking the vaccines to eligible populations at a community level and conducting widespread communication campaigns on the vaccination drive,” it said.

Pointing out that contact tracing was the weakest aspect of the government and most states in the first wave of COVID-19, the Network emphasised the need to “vigorously test, trace, isolate and treat infected persons, besides putting in place decentralised, locally relevant and evidence-based surveillance and containment strategies.” Testing needs to be ramped up significantly with emphasis on RT-PCR tests to uncover infections more quickly, it added. 

On new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus being found in India, AIPSN said that limited gene sequencing data has shown the extensive presence of the UK variant of the virus and the Indian double-variant. A report by Scroll pointed out that India played down new mutant COVID-19 strains to avoid panic and that it may have backfired. According to AIPSN, the government information is insufficient to draw a conclusion on the variants’ impact. “Significantly expanded gene sequencing across the country, and correlating findings with epidemiological data, is necessary to obtain a better understanding of the dangers posed and to work out containment and mitigation strategies addressing these variants,” the statement said.

It further added that vaccine production, availability as well as licensing and Intellectual Property (IP) issues need to be addressed. To that end, the Network has urged the Union government to take steps to boost the manufacturing capacity of the vaccines that have been approved for use (Covaxin and Covishield) while also taking steps to ramp up the availability of other vaccines. 

AIPSN has also asked for funds to be urgently provided to Serum Institute of India (manufacturing Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield) and Bharat Biotech (manufacturing Covaxin) to boost manufacturing capacities. Further, to enable better access, the government should “take the initiative to work out arrangements for licensing other Indian manufacturers to produce Covaxin so as to augment the total supply of this vaccine,” AIPSN said, adding that there is no need for Bharat Biotech to maintain a monopoly over the vaccine at a time of crisis like this.

Recently, the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) gave approval to Russian vaccine Sputnik-V for emergency use, and other vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and American, European and Japanese have been invited to apply for approval in India. However, the Network said that the Union government should ensure “a dual-access scenario does not emerge where the well-off have ready access to a wide variety of vaccines through private facilities by virtue of their ability to pay higher prices, while the poor struggle to access vaccines due to lack of paying ability and poor access to information.” 

Further, the Network has pointed out that the “misconceived campaign” that India should stop commercial and aid-based exports of vaccines so as to prioritise domestic needs should be stopped. Recently, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi had made remarks against India exporting vaccines, in the wake of shortages being reported by several states. “It should also be noted that India has received back around one-third of its supplies to Covax, since India, too, is a beneficiary country, and the largest recipient, under Covax,” said AIPSN. The Covax or COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access is a global initiative for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. 

The Serum Institute of India had recently delayed the shipping of Covishield under the Covax programme, reportedly after the Union government decided to halt the export to meet the domestic needs. 

“China and India are amongst the few countries that are working to assist the global vaccination effort, especially in developing and low-income countries, and it would be cruel and immoral to weaken or close down this endeavour in an extremely selfish display of vaccine nationalism, and that too for very little benefit. This is a record to be proud of, not condemned,” the AIPSN states.

“It should also be noted that it is precisely this kind of vaccine nationalism and related crass commercialism practiced by the US, which is one of the major factors preventing SII, Biological-E (licensed to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in India), and other vaccine manufacturers in India from scaling up its production. These manufacturers depend on various raw materials and intermediates such as specialised bags, filters, cell culture media, single-use tubing, and special chemicals from the US, which has imposed an export ban on all vaccine-related materials under its Defence Production Act. If India were to similarly restrict exports, it would have no moral authority to demand opening up of exports by the US or others,” it pointed out.

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