NEW DELHI: The world’s biggest vaccination drive to inoculate 1.3 billion people against the coronavirus is slowing down in India as concerns over safety fuel vaccine hesitancy, especially among health workers.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the campaign on Jan. 16, with 30 million frontline health care workers the first to get the jab. A week into the drive, however, Health Ministry data suggest that on average only 150,000 people have been inoculated a day — half of the government’s target.
“There is a general hesitancy among healthcare workers, particularly doctors, about the efficacy of the vaccines,” Adarsh Pratap Singh, president of the Resident Doctors Association of the premier Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), told Arab News on Friday.
Two coronavirus vaccines have been approved for emergency use in India: the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine produced domestically as Covishield by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, and a locally developed vaccine called Covaxin, produced by Indian company Bharat Biotech, which is still in its trial stage and has no final data on its efficacy.
“Lack of transparency is at the core of vaccine hesitancy,” Dr. Nirmalya Mohapatra of Delhi-based Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, told Arab News.
“We doctors should have jointly taken up the issue and asked the government to demonstrate more transparency in introducing the vaccine,” he said.
Mohapatra was one of the doctors who on Jan. 16 refused to take a Covaxin shot at his hospital.
Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum (PMSF) president, Dr. Harjit Singh Bhattialso, says that the absence of data is fueling “fear about the vaccination” among members of the medical community.
Concerns also exist about the Covishield vaccine.
“Even there is hesitancy about Covishied. There is no enthusiasm for it. However, people will prefer Covishied over Covaxin,” Bhatti said.
In response to vaccine hesitancy, Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan on Thursday launched an information campaign to address what he said were “rumors and misinformation.”
“We have launched a digital media package with impactful messages from key technical experts from the country who have taken COVID-19 vaccine,” Vardhan told reporters.
The messages, he said, are that “vaccines are safe and efficacious,” and cover the “critical role of vaccines in controlling the pandemic.”
But instead of digital campaigns, some doctors say that Indian leaders themselves should get the jabs to inspire trust in vaccination.
“If the Indian PM Narendra Modi and other political high-ups take the vaccine then it will have a huge impact,” Singh said. “There is a lack of political consensus on vaccines. To inspire confidence all the state chief ministers should also take the shot.”
According to media reports, Modi may get vaccinated in the second phase of the campaign, in March or April, when 270 million people above the age of 50 will be inoculated.
Other health experts argue, however, that vaccinating leaders is not a substitute for scientific processes.
“Leadership taking the vaccine is more of a tokenism than coming out clean on the efficacy and the actual and effective profile of the vaccine,” said Amar Jesani, a Mumbai-based health expert and editor of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics.
“What is tragic is that our PM might be ready to take the risk of vaccination (but) he is not ready to offend the companies, which are sitting on the data. Why can’t they make the data public? This is what the doctors are asking for,” he told Arab News.
In the absence of scientific data, he argued, people with underlying health problems would be hesitant to get vaccinated when the immunization campaign reaches the general public.
“When you are not transparent today, then tomorrow comorbid people will be hesitant and then the general population will be reluctant,” he said.