When British physician Edward Jenner made an experiment of cowpox vaccine at the end of the 18th century, that was what gave the concept of vaccine to the scientific world. That happened when smallpox was threatening to virtually wipe out humanity. There was a notion then e that once infected with cowpox, the person would not be infected again. Jenner decided to verify that at any cost. And he did that experiment in the eight-year old son of his gardener James Phipps.
Jenner inoculated into the boy, in the first phase the fluid from the hand of a milkmaid affected by cowpox and in the second phase the fluid from a cowpox-affected man. When Jenner noticed that even after weeks, Phipps did not have any signs of cowpox, he repeated this experiment in more people. It was after this was repeated in a more scientific manner and in wider scale that an effective vaccine against cowpox became a reality and thanks to that, smallpox was eradicated from the world after a century and a half.
The scientific world was able to tame killer diseases like measles and diphtheria – which had taken lakhs of human lives - using the same technology, the most recent example of similar eradication being that of polio. The name of Jenner, who laid the foundation of such a revolution in medical science, now comes to be remembered once again during the corona pandemic. The research institute named after him and functioning in Oxford University has developed a new vaccine against Covid. With the successful completion of the first two phases of experiment, the Oxford vaccine gives new hopes for mankind reeling under the scourge of the pandemic.
Although over 15 research centres are in an attempt to develop a vaccine against Covid, the Oxford vaccine holds something special for India. The Serum Institute of India (SII) is a partner in the experiments being conducted at Jenner Institute by British-Swedish pharma firm AstraZeneca. They have expressed readiness to conduct the third phase of the experiment - which is crucial in vaccine development - in India, and a request has been made for this purpose to the Drugs Controller General of India. Once approval is granted, at least two thousand volunteers of the country will be subject to the vaccine test. As per SII's projections, 30 crore doses of vaccine can be distributed in India by the end of the year. In other words, in India, which still faces the threat of social spread of the virus, the Oxford vaccine may arrive as a succour at a time when the virus spread is likely to hit its peak. In parallel to the Oxford vaccine, two other vaccine experiments are also being conducted in India.
Another vaccine named 'Covaxin', developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech in collaboration with ICMR and National Virology Institute, has been put to trials in six centres by now, and it was injected into humans last week for the first time. Yet another vaccine developed by the research centre based in Ahmedabad of pharmaceutical firm Zydus Cadila is also currently in the stage of clinical trials. Researchers claim that both Covaxin and this will be commercially available in the market by April next. Although at this time of the pandemic, when everything has come to a virtual halt, such vaccine trials give room for abundant hope, there are some concerns too. All the three vaccines mentioned here are being developed by private entities, and the role of our official research machinery is nominal, with attendant probability of the firms being swayed by market considerations. In the absence of governmental control, it is almost certain that they will not benefit the common man.
Even as it is, Serum Institute authorities have made it clarified that each dose of the vaccine may cost roughly Rs 1000. For the already poor section of the population, already in a free fall to hunger, this makes a huge amount; and they are the major victims of the virus too. The government should therefore be ready to offer remedial measures to make such vaccines available to such segments at concessional rates. Again, even when vaccine trials are conducted at a wider scale, government should step in there too. And as per normal practice of adequate tests and studies being conducted, they should also be followed before any new vaccines are imported from other countries and used.
Given that in the peculiar circumstances of Covid, the central government has made some relaxations in this regard, it is upto the government to ensure that this is not misused. Thus, only when vaccine experiments and use are made under the ambit of the government and official research centres will a comprehensive and complete Covid prevention become a reality. Only then will this wait will prove meaningful. Till such time, the need is to go by lessons of caution and vigilance.