As India nears the 25-million mark in its covid-19 vaccination programme, it is helping shape the future of adult mass vaccination in the country. Dr Samiran Panda, head, epidemiology and communicable diseases, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and a member of the government’s National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC), spoke about the government’s plans to tailor the vaccination strategy according to emerging evidence from science and field experience. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How do you think India can be on par with the global research quality? What is the current situation of covid-19 research?
India has been at the forefront of covid-19 research. Our scientists at ICMR made India the fifth country to isolate the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the first to isolate and culture the UK strain.
We have been successful in the development of a vaccine in less than a year. In addition to the vaccine, the country has been able to develop cheaper diagnostics for covid-19 as well. The PLACID trial (a phase II, open-label, randomized controlled trial to assess the safety and efficacy of convalescent plasma to limit covid-19 associated complications in moderate disease) conducted in India and participation of India in the World Health Organization’s Solidarity trial (treatment options against standard of care to assess their relative effectiveness against covid-19) contributed to the global knowledge of what works and what does not in the area of treatment of covid-19.
Articles of such critical importance from India abound in top international peer-reviewed journals on covid-19, which serve as a testimony to this observation. While these examples underline the immense capacity of India in conducting quality research, there is always room for improvement. One area that specifically comes to my mind is encouraging a research-oriented curriculum at the school and college level.
The recently released National Education Policy addresses this gap; we should work towards implementation of the policy next.
Covid-19 vaccines are primarily adult vaccines. In due course of time, when these vaccines will also be meant for children, does the government intend to include them in the universal immunization programme?
The strategy for covid-19 vaccine administration is directly related to the research findings that are coming out on the subject. Since the course of the disease in India is gradually being better delineated, based on countrywide serological survey as well as mapping vulnerability of pregnant women and children to SARS-CoV-2 infection, we will tailor our strategy as per the emerging evidence. Vaccine administration and roll-out are ensured by the ministry of health and family welfare and the government will take action as per the current need of the population.
What is your view of the adult immunization programme in India? Has the government ever tried to start such adult immunization programmes in the past?
Adult immunization programme, apart from involving a much larger number of individuals in a country compared to the size of the birth cohort covered under childhood immunization, inherently differs on various counts from the one meant for children. The communication needs, in particular, pertaining to adult immunization programme require specific strategy to address such issues —one of them being vaccine hesitancy, which also differ between different occupational, socio-cultural and age groups.
For example, the low uptake of annual flu shots among the elderly in India can be taken as a case for consideration in this regard. The first phase of covid vaccine roll-out among healthcare professionals and frontline workers in India also witnessed a similar phenomenon and innovative communication strategies subsequently helped in bending the curve of hesitancy down.
How is India, especially ICMR, moving ahead on the research front after the covid-19 pandemic?
Innovative health solutions identified through research conducted by ICMR, since its inception, have helped in changing the landscape of public health in India in numerous ways and in areas of both communicable and non-communicable diseases. The latest contribution came during the time of covid-19 pandemic, when researchers from ICMR led the efforts towards development and validation of diagnostic kits, setting up covid-19 laboratories, training personnel for laboratory management, isolation of the virus, research on therapeutics and drugs, and finally, the development of vaccine. These have been made possible by years of investing in capacity building—honing research skills and building the necessary infrastructure.