India working on next-gen covid vax: NTAGI’s Dr Arora

What happens six months after the booster dose?

It is very difficult to predict. The virus is evolving. We have started working on next-generation vaccines, which should provide wider coverage and try to cover variants which come in future. Some industry people and academic institutions have come forward on this task.

ALSO READ: Free COVID booster doses for adults aged 18-75 yrs from today

How do you see the decision to give free booster doses to everyone above 18?

It is a very welcome move and will likely increase the coverage of precaution doses. There are three important things which we need to see. First, covid is still very much around us, and today also, India reported more than 20,000 new cases. People are not coming for testing even if they have symptoms which has led to low testing. Second, for the last six months, we have been seeing cases of Omicron, and we are reporting new sub-lineages at regular intervals, such as BA.1, BA.2, BA.3, BA.4, XE variants and now, BA.5. Some of these variants have transmission benefit. This means that they spread 10-20% faster as compared to the original Omicron virus. But fortunately, none of them has caused severe disease, hospitalization and deaths as far as India is concerned. But we are keeping an eye on it, and there is a possibility that any day, a variant will come which is more severe and cause hospitalization or which is more virulent. So, the virus is constantly evolving, and mutations are occurring. Third, although the precaution dose was opened in January for people above 60 years, healthcare and frontline workers and in March for those above 18 years of age, the uptake has been poor, particularly in those with co-morbidity.

Why was the need felt? What is the booster dose coverage in the eligible population right now?

Our data shows precautionary dose coverage in the population above 60 years of age is approximately 40%, but in the younger population (18-59 years of age group), the coverage is around 5% to 7%.

Do you think launching the mission mode campaign will fill the gap?

Yes. This will improve the booster dose coverage when the government opens a massive booster dose campaign in mission mode. It has several things, such as the covid-19 booster vaccine being available freely at all government centres, and an extensive awareness drive is to be launched to encourage people. Because there is a sense of complacency that has set in that the virus is mild, adherence to covid-appropriate behaviour has disappeared. Recently, the government has also reduced the interval between the second dose and precaution dose to six months or 26 weeks for all covid-19 vaccines. Now, practically, those who have received the second dose from the primary vaccination regime are eligible to receive the booster dose. In view of all this, we hope that over the next 75 days, we should be able to encourage a large number of people to take the booster dose.

Some states still do not have good coverage of booster doses. What actions will be taken for such states?

The situation is poor across the country. In some places, the booster dose coverage is 2%, while in some places, the coverage is around 12%. We would like it to be 80-90%, just like primary vaccination. So, it has to be worked out with some intensity and gusto.

Why did people not turn up for booster doses?

One reason is that the fear factor has come down. Last year, during the second wave, there was quite a rush at vaccination centres. But in the case of Omicron, it is detected as mild; however, in some developed countries, Omicron is not that mild. That is why we are continuously saying that virus behaviour is very contextual and geographical. So, people think Omicron is just a mild fever or common cold. We know that even after vaccination, people got Omicron. But the fortunate thing is vaccination prevented severe disease, hospitalization and deaths. Therefore, for future security it is important to get the booster dose.

Delhi was already giving free booster doses. Why did the Centre not think this way earlier?

It is good to think in retrospect; however, we know several states, including Delhi, had made booster doses free of charge. But still, people were not coming forward. Therefore, a massive communication strategy is needed and, second, that Indian data shows that after six months of primary vaccination, antibody level starts coming down. That’s why the right timing of booster dose is key.

The health ministry has directed increasing the uptake of a booster dose of the Sputnik V vaccine. Why is its coverage less?

With regards to the Sputnik V vaccine, not many people have taken it, and around 2 million doses have been administered. Sputnik V availability is also an issue, and it is stock-out in various places. That’s why the ministry has directed states/UTs to increase uptake of a booster dose of the Sputnik V vaccine. Those who are now eligible for Sputnik V’s booster dose should be able to get it.

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