“Open to Assessing the Feasibility of Introducing several COVID-19 vaccines in the country as per their availability”: Dr. Harsh Vardhan

New Delhi: Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare responded to a volley of questions fielded by his social media interactors on the fifth episode of Sunday Samvaad. Sternly squashing rumours and removing popular misconceptions regarding COVID, the Health Minister gave detailed information on the role of Ayurveda in the fight against COVID, ICMR’s upcoming study on cases of reinfection, the selection criteria for vaccination and other critical information regarding the much touted COVID Vaccine.Upon learning on the various difficulties faced by his constituents in Chandni Chowk, Delhi he shared his contact details in the public platform as a response and assured that all issues faced by people in his constituency would be resolved on priority.

Warning people to stay away from large congregations and diligently follow the guidelines issued by the government regarding precautions to be taken, Dr. Harsh Vardhan requested people to celebrate upcoming festivals at home, with their loved ones, instead of going out to fairs and pandals. Reminding people that fighting against COVID is the foremost Dharma, he explained that his Dharma as the Health Minister of the country is to mitigate the virus and prevent deaths at any cost. “The Bhagwad Gita condones war for the warrior class. So, there is no need to congregate in large numbers to prove your faith or your religion. If we do this, we may be heading for big trouble. Lord Krishna says concentrate on your goal..my goal and your goal .. OUR goal is to finish this virus and save humanity. This is our religion. The religion of the whole world.”

He added that “Extraordinary circumstances must draw extraordinary responses. No religion or God says that you have to celebrate in an ostentatious way, that you have to visit pandals and temples and mosques to pray”. He exhorted citizens to join the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi ji’s clarion call to take a pledge and join the massive country-wide awareness campaign and “Jan Andolan” during the two months (including the winter season) so that the pandemic does not spread further. Dr Harsh Vardhan shared the possibility of increased novel coronavirus transmission during winters as it is a respiratory virus and the transmission of respiratory viruses is known to increase during the colder weather. “These viruses are known to thrive better in the cold weather and low humidity conditions. In view of these, it would not be wrong to assume that the winter season may see increased rates of transmission of the novel coronavirus in the Indian context too,” he noted. Adhering to the Covid appropriate behaviours of wearing masks/face covers, especially when in public places, regularly washing of hands and maintaining of respiratory etiquette ill help us to contain the spread of the diseases, he reiterated firmly.

Dr. Harsh Vardhan shared the good news of the rollout of the FELUDA Test in the near future. Based on tests in over 2000 patients during the trials at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) and on testing in private labs, the test showed 96% sensitivity and 98% specificity. This compares favourably to ICMR’s current acceptation criteria of RT-PCR Kit of at least 95% Sensitivity and at least 99% Specificity, he stated. He added that the Feluda paper strip test for SRS-CoV-2 diagnosis has been developed by CSIR-IGIB and has been approved by the Drug Controller General of India for a commercial launch. The kit has already been validated by the Department of Atomic Energy’s National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. “While I cannot put an exact date on the availability, we should expect this test within the next few weeks”, he said.

On the issue of how the government plans to roll out the COVID-19 vaccine by prioritizing target groups in the entire population, he clarified that it is anticipated that supplies of COVID-19 vaccines would be available in limited quantities in the beginning. He said “In a huge country like India, it is critical to prioritize vaccine delivery based on various factors such as per risk of exposure, comorbidity among various population groups, the mortality rate among COVID Cases, and several others.” He also added that India is looking at the availability of several different types of vaccines, of which some may be suitable for a particular age group while others may not be.

Reiterating that the most important component of the planning is the cold chain and other logistics which need to be planned appropriately to ensure no glitches occur in vaccine delivery even at the last mile, Dr Harsh Vardhan highlighted the need of the massive advocacy required for building community sensitization activities to understand the reasons for vaccine hesitancy and address them appropriately. Categorically denying the rumours of the Government prioritizing young and working-class for the COVID-19 vaccine for economic reasons, Dr Harsh Vardhan said, “the prioritisation of groups for COVID-19 vaccine shall be based on two key considerations: Occupational hazard and risk of exposure to infection, and the risk of developing severe disease and increased mortality.”

Putting on his doctor hat, he explained to a respondent that the Phase I trials are done primarily to establish the safety of the product; Phase II Trials measure immunogenicity as a primary endpoint and safety as a secondary endpoint; In Phase III clinical trials, both safety and immunogenicity continue to be measured as secondary endpoints; efficacy being the primary endpoint for this phase of a clinical trial.

On the issue of Emergency Use Authorization of COVID vaccines in India, the Minister said that the issue is being deliberated at present. “Adequate safety and efficacy data is required for emergency use authorization vaccine approval for ensuring patient safety. Further course of action will depend on the data generated,” he added.

He informed that COVID-19 Vaccines currently in trial in India are 2 dose and 3 dose vaccines. Vaccine by Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech require 2 Doses while the Cadila Healthcare vaccine requires 3 Doses. For other vaccines in preclinical stages, the dosing is being tested, he stated.

On the need to include other novel candidates as COVID Vaccine, he said, “Considering the large population size of India, one vaccine or vaccine manufacturer will not be able to fulfil the requirements of vaccinating the whole country. Therefore, we are open to assessing the feasibility of introducing several COVID-19 vaccines in the country as per their availability for the Indian population.” Sharing his views on Public-Private Partnership during the Pandemic, Dr Harsh Vardhan further said that the present situation demands multiple vaccine partners to ensure maximum vaccination coverage to the Indian population and the use of a single vaccine from a certain company should not be seen through a negative lens.

The Minister requested people to not share any content related to health & safety without double-checking its veracity. He added that as we learn more about the novel coronavirus and more vaccine candidates start their Phase II and Phase III Trials, there is bound to be a lot of fake and incorrect news on social media that is perpetrated by people with vested interests. He shared that the COVID-19 Fact Check Unit in the Press Information Bureau (PIB) under Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting is regularly scanning social media platforms for fake news and requested his followers to report such fake news to PIB‟s fact check unit.

On the matter of cases of reinfection, Dr Harsh Vardhan stated that though there are sporadic reports of reinfection surfacing in various states, careful analysis of ICMR database reveals that many of these cases have actually been misclassified as reinfections. He added that it is very important to differentiate mislabeled reinfection from actual reinfection. “Actual reinfection would mean a fully recovered person getting infected by a freshly introduced virus in his/her body, belonging to the same or different strain. ICMR is commissioning a study to understand the true burden of re-infected cases. Results will be shared in a couple of weeks”, he said.

Expressing personal trauma at the loss of doctors to the pandemic, Dr Harsh Vardhan detailed steps taken to prevent occurrences of COVID-19 infection among healthcare workers. States are thoroughly supported in terms of PPE Kits, N-95 masks and HCQ for the protection and prophylaxis of healthcare workers managing COVID cases. AIIMS, Delhi regularly conducts a series of webinars with the State Level Centers of Excellence where guidelines on Infection, Prevention and Control get further disseminated. Training modules have been made available on the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare website as well as iGoT – Deeksha platform on infection, prevention and control practices. He added that the Ministry of Health has also issued guidelines on rational use of Personal Protection Equipment for healthcare workers working in COVID and non-COVID areas of health facilities and in the field.

The Minister also informed that he keeps talking personally to all State health ministers and other health officials to ensure that our corona warriors are well taken care of.

Responding to calls for medical attention to people in isolation, Dr. Harsh Vardhan noted with satisfaction the sharp increase in acceptance of telemedicine services in India which have not only enabled the government to provide the right care to patients during the Pandemic, but also helped to contain the transmission of the dangerous virus. Discussing this new and encouraging development, he said, “eSanjeevani has over 12,000 practitioners of various State Government Health Departments and their services have been sought so far by people from 510 districts, across 26 states in the country. While the first 1 Lakh consultations on the platform took around 3 months, the last 1 Lakh consultations have come up in well under 3 weeks, which is a great achievement.”

During the Sunday Samvaad conversation, Dr Harsh Vardhan shared that in the first phase the Government of India has released Rs 3000 Crores to States and UTs to battle COVID-19 pandemic. Almost all, except three States/UTs, have utilized the complete grant given to them: Maharashtra has only used 42.5% of the grant followed by Chandigarh at 47.8% and Delhi at 75.4%, he stated.

Answering the criticism surrounding the efficacy of AYUSH formulations in the treatment of COVID-19, Dr Harsh Vardhan explained the concept of Salutogenesis and how these formulations target holistic recovery of patients. Pointing to in-depth study of literature and scientific evidence generated from in silico studies, experimental studies, and clinical studies, he said, “Guduchi, Ashwagandha, Guduchi & Pippali combination and AYUSH 64 have a substantial number of studies which prove their immuno-modulatory, anti-viral, antipyretic and anti-inflammatory properties. These interventions have also shown a good binding affinity with COVID-19 virus in in-silico studies.” He further informed that scientific studies have been initiated with the aforesaid remedies to assess their impact in the prophylaxis, secondary prevention and management of COVID-19 afflicted cases on the recommendations of the Interdisciplinary Task Force set up by the Government.

Recounting the benefits of Chyawanprash, Dr Harsh Vardhan stated that the information available through clinical studies have shown that individuals who consume Chyawanprash regularly for a definite period of time show improvement in overall health status and immunity and while sugar is an essential component, customers can opt for sugar-free versions in the market.