Amid concerns over Omicron, India's COVID-19 Task Force chief VK Paul on Tuesday said there is a potential scenario that "our vaccines may become ineffective in emerging situations" and emphasised the need to be ready to modify the vaccines as per requirement. He also hoped that COVID in India is possibly moving in the direction of endemicity, where there is a low or moderate level of transmission going on.
"We have experienced Delta shock and now the Omicron shock... there is a potential scenario that our vaccines may become ineffective in emerging situations in the wake of the last three weeks of living with Omicron, we have seen how such doubts have come up, some of them may be genuine, we still don't have the final picture," he said.
Speaking at an event organised by industry body CII, Paul also emphasised the need for having vaccine platforms that are adaptable quickly with the changing nature of the variants. "How soon can we create a vaccine which is using the same platform, but is now targeted to the variant of the day... we may have to think about how we go about doing it.
"...moving from the rapid development of generic vaccine, we have to be ready to be able to have a situation where resiliently we are able to modify the vaccines as require(d). This may not happen every three months but this could happen every year perhaps. Therefore, that needs to be factored in," Paul said. The new COVID variant called B.1.1.529 or Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from South Africa on November 24.
According to Paul, drug development will not go out of fashion for the next viral epidemic/ pandemic that the world might face and that antimicrobial resistance challenge is also crying for drug solutions. Noting that there is a need to examine how India's classical drug industry can have a roadmap and risk-taking attitude, he said, "We are still crying for an effective drug to fight viral diseases, including COVID."
The coronavirus pandemic has taught that viruses cannot be taken lightly, and the unpredictability in emerging scenarios of health have to be respected and addressed, Paul noted.
"Pandemic is not over, we will continue to deal with uncertainty, even though we hope that we are possibly moving in the direction of endemicity, hopefully of a mild disease, that we can tackle," Paul said but cautioned that the situation cannot be taken for granted. The endemic stage is when a population learns to live with a virus. It is very different from the epidemic stage when the virus overwhelms a population.
While noting that the contribution of the industry to science is low in the country, Paul said, "Our national investment in science is all public money... even during developing the vaccines, a lot of testing was done at the national laboratory." Further, he said that 97 percent of the vaccines delivered to Indian people was with public money and very little with private money.
The foremost priority right now is to make sure that there is universal coverage of the vaccine and no one is left behind, Paul said, adding that globally, there are 3.6 billion people who are not vaccinated.
"We need 7.2 billion doses together, and with the current rate of production, it is well within our grasp... it is possible for us to deliver the vaccine," Paul said.