On March 22nd, I opened the Aarogya Setu app on my phone to book our appointment for the second or booster dose of the Covishield vaccine. My husband and I had had our first shot before noon on March 1st, when the union government rolled out the programme for senior citizens like us. We were told we could take the next shot after 28 days. A few days’ delay would not matter, added the doctor at the vaccination centre.
The earliest appointment I got (confirmed via SMS) at our preferred centre, Yashoda Multi Specialty Hospital, Kaushambi, Ghaziabad, where we had taken the first shot, was on March 31st. A few days earlier, the much respected Lancet had reported the findings of a study on Covishield — the vaccine developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca. It said the efficacy of the vaccine was maximum when the booster shot was given 12 weeks after the first. The issue came up at subsequent daily press briefings on COVID by the health ministry, but the government gave no clarification and hinted that they would conduct their own studies.
Many of us were concerned — should we go ahead with the 4-week gap? Or should we, on our own, go back only after 12 weeks? Our doctors had suggested that there was no harm in taking the booster after 28 days, and that we don’t have to delay it for 12 weeks.
I had another pressing reason for not delaying the booster shot. My desperate need to fly to Chennai to be by the side of my 86-year-old mother struggling to live, possibly waiting to see all her children who could not make the trip on account of the lockdown, flight restrictions, local COVID regulations and finally the vaccination. Like many others, I felt flying out a few days after the booster shot would be safe — for my very ill Amma and us.
Relieved that I did not have to change our March 31st appointment, I nervously booked flight tickets for Chennai for April 5th. That same evening, the government announced that people who had taken Covishield should have the second shot between 6 to 8 weeks! There was no communication on CoWin/Aarogya Setu/NHSMS that the appointments of the thousands lined up for the booster from March 28th onward were cancelled or would have to be made afresh!
Where are the vaccines?
There were the conspiracy theorists who smelt a shortage of vaccines — which senior cabinet ministers Prakash Javadekar and Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan denied. These ‘theorists’ felt the government had changed the vaccine schedule to manage the shortage. But confident that the government would not embark on vaccine diplomacy if it did not have enough for its citizens, we went to our vaccination centre at the appointed time. We were shown a government notification and turned back. The CoWin app would not allow our vaccination and we would not get the certificate, we were told.
A bit of pleading and arguing led to the doctor revealing that though they had paid in advance for the vaccines, they had not received supplies of Covishield for over a week. They not only had to turn back people who had an appointment, but could not give the first jab even to their own health workers who were initially reluctant, but now wanted to be vaccinated. “You can imagine my plight tomorrow, when people over 45 will be here,” said the hapless doctor. “Their numbers are way more than that of your category (60+) and I have to make them go back.”
I pleaded that I had a flight to take and had planned it such that I would be fully immunised before I leave. “There are people with tickets to the USA—at least you can take the vaccine in Chennai, they can’t get this in New York or LA,” the doctor responded, adding that even if they decided to do me the favour of giving me the jab without the certificate — as CoWin would not accept people till the sixth week — they could not, because they had no vaccine.
The same day, a friend in Bengaluru had an appointment for her booster. Her vaccination centre had called asking her to get an appointment for mid April. Since she knew the doctor at that centre, she learnt that there was a shortage, possibly because the government probably wanted to go with the new schedule, and send a different vaccine for the 45+ people.
Incidentally, the same day March 31st, a person in Chennai received the second shot of Covishield at a government centre, and was given a letterhead with his name, the date of the first dose, date of the second, and the injection name: Covishield. On April 7th, six weeks after his first shot, he received a “final certificate” wherein the date of the second dose was mentioned as April 7! There was a batch number assigned to it. Was it the batch that was administered on April 7, or on March 31, when he was actually given the shot? It is not clear from the certificate that came with a false date.
What’s all the fuss over a date, one might ask. It is important because the government has rescheduled the booster shots to a date 6-8 weeks from the first. It is important because the batch number in the certificate will become important for research and liability in case there is an adverse reaction.
While the government continues to claim there is no shortage, the the maker of Covishield, Serum Institute of India, has distinctly mentioned shortage. SII CEO Adar Poonawala had told a news channel that the SII produces between 60 and 65 million doses per month presently, and has so far given around 100 million doses to the centre and exported 60 million. “The globe needs this vaccine… we are prioritising the needs of India (but) we are still short of being able to supply to every Indian,” Poonawalla said.
Says Prof Amod Gupta, former Dean, PGI and director of the Advanced Eye Care Centre, PGI, Chandigarh: “There is nothing like charity for private organisations. Only the government can afford to do it. GOI needs to support the efforts of manufacturers of essential drugs and vaccines as a duty towards its citizens.”
Even as the campaign for vaccine for all gains momentum, there appears to be major discrepancies in the way the vaccine programme is being rolled out and the way its manufacture and distribution are being executed.