Dr Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare was interviewed today at the ‘India Economic Conclave’ organized by The Times Now.
Commenting on the COVID19 trajectory in India and the recentsurge in cases, Dr Harsh Vardhan noted, “The detailed concerted efforts of Central and State Governments and India’s investment in the “Test, Track and Treat” strategy have resulted in India recording one of the lowest cases and deaths per million population. In the initial part of the pandemic, we had to establish everything from scratch, be it the surveillance, the laboratory capacity, the dedicated hospital infrastructure for COVID19, the logistics of therapeutics and vaccine and not to forget creation of the public movement for COVID appropriate behavior. We have amply demonstrated that our policy of test, track and treat effectively contains the transmission.”
“Now that the systems are in place, we are better prepared to tackle any challenges that it throws our way. The situation of recent surge in cases is being closely monitored. Decisive steps, which include strict enforcement of COVID protocols as well as creating micro-containment zones wherever needed, will be used to keep a check on the rise in number of cases,” he added.
Responding to a question on the second wave of COVID in India, Dr Harsh Vardhan said, “India followed a graded, pre-emptive, proactive, whole of Government and society approach in tackling COVID pandemic in the country. The graded opening up of economy and commercial activities followed a sustained decline in COVID-19 epi-curve in the country. This was essential to negate the economic impact that COVID-19 has had globally, including India. Historically, the pandemics of the past have come in waves and COVID is no exception. This was amply witnessed when the second wave hit Europe and Americas. It still eludes the scientific community why pandemics behave in this way.”
He continued, “Physical distancing is an established non-pharmaceutical intervention to suppress/contain the transmission of the COVID virus. The modality for ensuring such physical distancing measures have to be evidence based. In this context, partial lockdowns such as night curfews or weekend lockdowns would not have much impact on the transmission cycle. As for vaccine, there are still many critical unknowns, especially with regards to the impact on transmission and duration of protection these vaccines offer. Further what is clear is it reduces severity of disease and hence impacts the mortality. ”
Commenting on dynamic nature of the virus and its impact, Dr Harsh Vardhan said, “The history of this coronavirus is unknown, the disease COVID19 is very dynamic in its behaviour, so from day one we are only relying on evolving scientific evidence to drive our decision making to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.Our containment strategies to check the spread of the virus that have been praised the world over were based on such scientific inputs.We are carrying out genome sequencing of the virus to keep a track of any changes in its propensity or nature.The vaccination drive is being conducted in accordance with emerging science-based data analyzed through scientific algorithms. Around 6 vaccines are in different stage of trial, and will be granted permission as and when they complete all statutory requirements. DCGI is looking on this matter as already emphasized, this is a dynamic process.”
Responding to the concerns regarding low coverage of eligible beneficiaries and vaccine hesitancy, he said, “Ongoing COVID-19 vaccination drive has a crucial role in India’s pandemic response by protecting those at highest risk of mortality due to COVID-19. The coverage of 2nd dose among Health Care Workers is 76.88% and Front Line Workers is 71.94% against eligible beneficiaries which is adequate.Other Healthcare workers and Frontline workers will eventually be getting vaccinated as per their schedule. Further, the time interval between two doses of Covishield vaccine has also been increased to 4-8 weeks, which could give a false impression of low 2nd dose coverage, which is not true. Vaccination of priority age group above 60 years and above 45 years with specified co morbidities started from 1st March and their second dose will be due in month of April, this may again give a false impression of low second dose coverage. Government is keeping a close watch on the number of beneficiaries being vaccinated each day and number of people in the prioritized age group vaccinated till date. We are also ensuring supplies of vaccines to the states as per their per day vaccination capacities.”
Responding to the growing concerns surrounding COVISHIELD after some reports emerged of the vaccine causing blood clots, Dr Harsh Vardhan said, “Such cases are being examined by the respective government of the countries where they have emerged. In India, all cases of Adverse Events Following Immunization are monitored through a well-structured & robust surveillance system. Causality Assessment of all serious and severe AEFIs are done by the designated AEFI committee to determine if event is related to vaccine or vaccination process or otherwise. Till date as per current evidence, no significant adverse event following immunization has been reported in India. “
“Our National Regulators have examined the efficacy and safety data from Clinical trials of Covishield and Covaxin. I would like to re-iterate that both the vaccines being used in our country are completely safe and immunogenic. Presently, there are no concerns about the safety of vaccines being used in India,” he added.
He highlighted, “Our communication strategy is adequately prepared to sustain vaccine confidence and address any vaccine hesitancy among population. The same is being implemented across States and UTs. Communications National Media Rapid Response cell has been established at the Union Health Ministry for early identification of any misinformation or rumour and countering the same with correct information. FAQs for general public and healthcare & frontline workers have been developed and widely disseminated; experts have been identified for op-eds and articles to build vaccine confidence. Fact check videos by key experts have also been prepared and disseminated to provide correct & factual information for general public”.
Reiterating the clarion call of Prime Minister in making the vaccination drive a ‘Jan Andolan’, the Union Minister said, “The ongoing vaccination drive is being strengthened on a daily basis to increase the number of vaccinations administered each day.All stakeholders are involved in this drive to make it a ‘Jan Andolan’.”
On the subject of vaccine related side effects, Dr Harsh Vardhan replied, “The percentage of serious Adverse Events Following Immunization is 0.0002% of the total number of beneficiaries vaccinated, which is very less. Thus select few cases is not a generalisation and their cause and effect needs to be established. We are taking cognisance of all scientific evidences while undertaking the causality assessment of AEFIs.”