Is India winning the Covid battle?

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on September 14, 2021

It appears so, thanks to strong supply of vaccines and the inoculation drive

After 17 months of living with Covid-19, we know better than to make predictions that are only shredded in a new brutal wave. But faint hopes are stirring among epidemiologists and doctors the worst may be behind us. In Delhi, which was ravaged by the pandemic, a CSIR survey showed 86 per cent of its unvaccinated staff had Covid-19 antibodies. Lucknow and Ghaziabad aren’t far behind, according to the study that examined 12,000 CSIR staffers from peons to scientists and their families.

Could that be the explanation for why there were only 17 new cases and no deaths in Delhi on September 13? That’s the lowest since March 28, 2020, when the first lockdown had just been declared and we had no idea of the horrors ahead.

There’s only been one Covid-19 death in Delhi throughout September. Vaccinologist T Jacob John reckons: “The third wave by the Delta variant is most unlikely.” He cautions, though, if “a new variant appears on the scene, all bets could be off.”

From another direction, the vaccination drive has finally moved into high gear. The government is claiming credit but the laurels really belong to Adar Poonawalla and the Serum Institute of India. Earlier in 2021, Serum Institute was producing 65 million Covishield doses monthly.

Originally, it said it could hike output to 100 million by July. In the event, it produced 100 million in June, 120 million in August and expects to turn out 200 million doses in September. That’s enabled the government to accelerate its vaccination campaign steeply, sometimes to 10 million doses daily, and that should also play a role in mitigating any third wave, should indeed there be one.

Bharat Biotech remains a much smaller vaccine player. It has converted a Gujarat rabies-vaccine plant to making Covaxin. It’s tight-lipped about its July and August production numbers. It was producing 25 million doses monthly early in the year. Covaxin is a whole virus vaccine, quite tricky to manufacture.

Also, after many stops-starts, the Sputnik V vaccine is now available in several cities, though it’s unclear how many doses are on offer. Sputnik has one advantage: there’s just a 21-day interval between jabs.

Tough goal to meet

With all these vaccines available, the government could conceivably give one vaccine dose to all eligible adults by year-end but it could fall short as some States’ vaccine delivery has been slow. So far, 18 per cent of adults have been double-jabbed and 58 per cent are single-jabbed. The government’s original target was to give both jabs to all 940 million adult Indians, but that goal may be tough to meet.

It’s worth looking at how other countries have fared when confronted with the highly transmissible Delta variant. The UK was congratulating itself on an efficient vaccine rollout when it was felled once again by Delta. How tough has it been to combat Delta? In January, the UK peaked at 68,000 new daily cases. That fell to the low thousands till mid-June when numbers again began shooting up to close to 50,000 in July. The UK had 28,614 cases on Sunday and that’s despite 89 per cent of adults being fully vaccinated. Crucially, though, people who had the two jabs accounted for just 1.2 per cent of 51,281 Covid deaths in England in the first seven months of 2021, government statistics show.

The US had a similar pattern of infections. In January, new cases peaked at slightly over 300,000 daily. The number fell back to 50,000-70,000 daily till shooting up to 150,000 daily in September. Once again, the resurgence was caused by the virulent Delta variant. The US has a lower vaccination rate — just over half of Americans are fully vaccinated — and an astonishingly large and vocal anti-vax movement.

Indeed, many countries around the world have learnt the enormous difficulty of keeping Delta at bay and the importance of vaccinations. Vietnam had the toughest rules to stamp out Covid. Till end-June, its cases were in the hundreds but they’ve soared since to 12,000 currently.

In fact, Vietnam is tied joint last, in 120th place with Thailand, on Nikkei Asia’s Covid Recovery Index whose criteria includes countries’ infection management and crucially, vaccine rollout. Vietnam has been extremely slow on the vaccination front with just 3 per cent of its population fully inoculated. It has now obtained vaccines from China. Across Asia, a similar pattern has emerged. Countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines which were congratulating themselves on keeping Covid at bay found they had no answer to the Delta variant. Thailand, which has a splendid health system, doesn’t produce vaccines. It was supposed to manufacture for AstraZeneca, but production by the Thai king’s company picked for the job despite no vaccine-making experience has been sluggish. The result is only 9 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated.

In India, there are two risks. Firstly, the festival season is around the corner and crowds are already gathering in the markets. Secondly, the patchy picture around the globe, both for infections and vaccinations, mean it’s impossible to predict when Covid cases will cease to spring up.

At another level, some countries like the UK are now offering one jab for children between the ages of 16-17 and are now also making the same offer to children between 12-15. Vaccinating children above the age of 15 is almost certainly necessary but in our country, this will add hugely to the numbers in the queue for the jabs. India is a young country with around 400 million below-18 youngsters.

We often forget how lucky India is to have a thriving vaccine-producing industry. Even many developed countries have been struggling to procure vaccines. And Africa remains an area of darkness when it comes to vaccines: only 3 per cent of Africans are fully vaccinated.

Then there’s the issue of booster shots, especially when so many people worldwide haven’t had a first shot. A new all-star panel of scientists has said the vaccines right now are working so well most people don’t yet need a booster and governments would be better to concentrate on vaccinating the unvaccinated.

It’s also important to remember our country cannot live in isolation. Jacob John notes the concept of herd immunity comes from animals. But humans do not stay corralled in one field forever. They’re constantly on the move. So, it’s important to remember poet John Donne’s lines: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less….”

Or, to put it more bluntly: till everyone is vaccinated no one is safe.

Published on September 14, 2021

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