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India has extraordinary history of successful vaccinations: K Vijayaraghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser, GoI

For the development of treatment for Covid-19, industry and scientists have shared information in an open manner
One must be very optimistic about vaccine development. Typically, to develop a vaccine takes 10 years but the Covid-19 vaccine has been done in one year. There is a huge amount of investment. But the investment does not mean short cuts. The investment comes by allowing what could otherwise have gone in a series to now going in parallel, said K Vijayaraghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser, Government of India.

On the availability of Covid-19 vaccine to all, Vijayaraghavan said that India has got an extraordinary history of successful vaccinations, including smallpox, that completely transformed the society and the health systems. Then the vaccination was just administered and there was no debate whether it was good or bad for a person. Today, everybody discusses and debates everything. It is for institutes like IIT Madras to communicate the nuances of vaccine administration and vaccination, he said at Sangam, the annual global conference organised by the IIT Madras Alumni Association, in conversation with Krishnan Narayanan, Vice President of the association.

Vaccines are administered to healthy people and the demand for trials and safety are enormous. It should be safe; have an immune response; deal with the infection and be effective. All the vaccines that are in late phase trials are subject to very stringent tests, said Vijayaraghavan.

On how India went about dealing in the beginning with the Covid-19 pandemic, Vijayaraghavan said India’s health system, which is often criticised, has an extraordinary reach to every single village through the district health centres, the integrated disease surveillance programme, Anganwadis and ASHA workers. Over the years, a sound reporting structure has been perfected that reports any untoward illnesses, such as unusual pneumonia or a symptom in a patient that cannot be attributed to something specific. This reporting structure is integrated into the global reporting structure.

When the WHO issued an advisory in January on the concern of coronavirus, the system in India was activated. And India became among the first countries to put restrictions on people coming in. The system responded very well with people being isolated and symptoms checked.

However, at that point in time, there were challenges, as tests were not available to specifically identify people with coronavurus infection as distinct from those who had a similar kind of symptom. As the tests were unavailable then, people were isolated on the basis of the symptoms. They were quarantined. If they did not develop Covid-19 symptoms, they were allowed to go out after the quarantine. Only a little later was it known what people without symptoms can transmit, and there was a proper test only later. There were lessons on how to deal with future pandemics and epidemics where there would be no tests available, he said.

On global collaborations, Vijayaraghavan said that in the Covid-19 pandemic, the primacy was about public good, and issues like intellectual property (IP) and making a profit were way down the line. Not only did scientists globally share information but also industry across India shared information extraordinarily well. Many industries across the world made their documentation openly available. This resulted in the rapid development of products, particularly for testing, and treatment of various kinds, but less so for vaccine development and drug development because these are more later-stage processes, he said.