Trust in Vaccines and Scientific Innovation will drive India’s fight against the pandemic, says the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
India’s COVID-19 vaccination drive, the largest immunization drive in the world is currently underway. In its first phase, over 14 million health and essential care workers have received the vaccine.
From March 1st, the government has launched phase two of the drive in conjunction with India’s private sector to vaccinate the 60-plus age group and those above 45 years of age with co-morbidities.
Through its “Aksha” platform that convenes knowledge and expertise that addresses India’s challenges in healthcare and social development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has contributed generously to the vaccine-making endeavours in India, has highlighted the efforts of the Indian government and suggested how through a collaborative approach India seems to be on track towards containing the spread of the virus and mitigating related morbidity and mortality. In fact, the Foundation has brought forth ideas, solutions, data and evidence on what’s working and what’s not. It is providing the opportunity to share lessons learnt globally along with how these can be applied to the challenges faced by India.
The Foundation has highlighted how two COVID-19 vaccines: Covishield (developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India) and Covaxin (developed and manufactured by Bharat Biotech), have been approved for emergency use. It has also appreciated how a digital platform, CoWIN (Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network) has been set up for planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the vaccination drive.
It may be noted that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) has been working closely with the state governments, to lead this massive national effort to vaccinate priority populations against COVID-19.
With the goal of achieving equitable access to the vaccine in every part of the world, the Gates Foundation, through Gavi’s COVAX Advance Market Commitment, has provided funding of $300 million to support the Serum Institute of India, for manufacturing a low cost vaccine for India as well as other Low and Middle Income Countries.
The COVAX program aims to vaccinate roughly 20 per cent of the population in the 92 Advance Market Commitment (AMC) countries.
The first round of distribution has begun with Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire receiving the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine licensed to Serum Institute of India.
In line with India’s stated commitment to use the country’s vaccine production and delivery capacity to help all of humanity fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of India, under the Vaccine Maitri initiative has distributed nearly 23 million vaccine doses to twenty countries till date.
To supplement these efforts, a comprehensive communication strategy has also been put in place and is being implemented at national, state, district, and block level to provide scientific, accurate and timely information from authoritative medical sources to strengthen and raise public trust in vaccines. The strategy is built on four core pillars –
1. Information on the new COVID-19 vaccine: Provide prompt, simple and focused communication on the COVID-19 vaccine(s) and vaccination processes
2. Vaccine Eagerness: Ensure understanding and acceptance of the phased and prioritized approach to overcome concerns of the population waiting for vaccination
3. Vaccine Hesitancy: Build public confidence on the safety and efficacy of the new vaccine
4. COVID Appropriate Behaviours: Maintain and sustain key preventive behaviours: wearing masks, maintaining physical distance and hand washing with soap
In addition to rolling out a comprehensive communication strategy, there are specific efforts being made to counter the prevailing infodemic – an information epidemic where deliberate attempts to promote and disseminate misinformation and disinformation could undermine the effectiveness of the public health response. At the global level, WHO is working with more than 50 digital companies and social media platforms to help curb misinformation and ensure that scientifically accurate health messages from the organization or other official sources appear first when people search for information related to COVID-19.
The Government of India has set up a Rapid Risk Response team at the MoHFW to track the misinformation narrative using social media listening tools across region and languages, and counter it with science-based messaging on vaccines and pandemic response overall. For instance, the MoHFW has been hosting weekly #VaccineVarta or Vaccine Conversations which allows the public to engage directly with experts on their concerns and questions. Accurate and scientifically sound information from the Ministry sources can be found easily when people search for information pertaining to COVID-19 and vaccines online.
Similarly, videos of verified experts talking about COVID-19 on the YouTube homepage is garnering millions of views daily; experts are speaking with media; they have also been engaged to provide accurate answers on Sharechat (Indian version of WhatsApp) to dispel any false information that may be proliferating.
Further, since media shapes public opinion and behaviour, the government is working closely with national and regional, digital, and print platforms, to ensure that accurate and timely information is made available to them and they can in turn amplify the same on their platforms. Expert voices, doctors, and front-line workers are lending their voice on need for immunization, efficacy of vaccines and information on the process of getting inoculated.
The pandemic is far from over. While the vaccination drive is underway, new strains are emerging and the authorities are continuing the momentum on the Test, Track, Treat strategy while sustaining communication campaigns on COVID-safe behaviors.
Simultaneously, the Government remains focused on staying ahead of the virus mutations by investing in research, development of innovative drugs, therapeutics, and diagnostics.
DBT (Department of Biotechnology) has announced genome sequencing of virus focused on understanding viral and host genomics of COVID-19 outbreak.
Bharat Biotech has announced that it is working on single dose nasal vaccine which is easier to administer but will also reduce the use of medical consumables such as needles, syringes, and impact overall cost of a vaccination drive.
So far, India seems to be on track towards containing the spread of the virus and mitigating related morbidity and mortality. This has been a result of extensive collaboration between various stakeholders: political leadership, central and state administrative authorities; India’s home-grown scientific research ecosystem, Indian manufacturing companies, media; and the public’s adherence to COVID-safe behaviours. Going forward too, this collaborative approach rooted in science will remain key to mitigating the health and socio-economic impact of the ongoing pandemic.