The resurgence of Covid-19 in Europe and the United States and the fear of a similar surge in infections during the months of winter have fuelled the demand for booster Covid vaccines in India. In a desperate attempt to contain the surge, many countries in Europe have gone into lockdown and have also launched massive vaccine booster programmes. The US too has allowed all adults above 18 years to get a booster shot. These developments have prompted public health experts, researchers, private hospitals and political leaders here to demand a booster dose in India, at least for the most vulnerable and healthcare workers, who were the first to get vaccinated. While there are genuine concerns over the risk of an outbreak of Covid-19 again, the fact also remains that the private health sector has its own reasons for demanding booster doses. Due to the differential vaccine pricing strategy of the Government of India (GoI), many private hospitals are struggling to clear their unused stocks of Covid vaccines. The Covid vaccines are administered free of cost at all government healthcare facilities while private hospitals have been allowed to charge up to Rs 780 for Covishield and Rs 1,400 for Covaxin. As a result, the private health sector is struggling to clear the piling stock of vaccines and need a booster dose programme to offload the unused stock.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) recently observed that people with weaker immunity can get a booster dose, the GoI on its part has adopted a wait and watch policy and has rightfully decided to first focus on vaccinating the eligible adult population. At present, only 80% of the eligible population in India has received the first dose of Covid vaccine and only 43% are fully vaccinated. There are over 12 crore individuals in India and nearly 1.5 crore in Telangana who are overdue for their second dose. Fewer fully vaccinated individuals translate to higher chances of emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2. Realising this, the States have launched special second dose vaccination campaigns, including ‘Har Ghar Dastak’, the house-to-house Covid vaccination drive by the GoI. In a country with just 30% of eligible persons fully vaccinated, even thinking about a booster dose seems a luxury. Unlike scientific studies in the West that clearly link waning immunity levels among fully vaccinated individuals, there are no similar Indian population-specific studies that indicate a drop in immunity. The fact also remains that ICMR sero-surveillance studies have indicated that a large section of the population in India, especially in cities, have acquired natural immunity for the Delta variant. The hybrid immunity, a combination of immunity acquired naturally and gained from vaccines, might have bought some more time and stronger immunity to the Indian population. Given these circumstances, it may appear prudent to first focus on completing administration of the second dose to the adult population. At least, for the next two to three months!
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