Explained: Will government’s free Covid vaccine booster drive do the trick?

The worst of Covid-19 pandemic may be over, but the flurry of problems classified as post-covid syndrome could sweep the world.

The government has announced a free booster dose of the Covid vaccine to all adults at government centres. The special drive will be conducted over the next 75 days from Friday, the government officials said on Wednesday. While the booster dose has been available at a certain cost at private clinics for some time now, people remain reluctant to get Covid vaccination which may have pushed the government to start a free vaccine drive.

So far, less than 1% of the target population of 77 crore in the 18-59 age group have been administered the precaution dose. More than a fourth of the estimated 16 crore eligible population aged 60 and above as well as healthcare and frontline workers have already received the booster dose.

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The country also has millions of COVID-19 vaccine stocks which may expire in August-September 2022 as the country’s COVID-19 vaccine uptake for primary inoculation stagnated and for boosters remained poor. The same may have also been a reason for the free dose srive. But it remains to be seen if the government will be able to administer the third dose to the target population especially at a time when the fear of coronavirus has started to wane.

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Why people resist Covid vaccine booster shot

When it was time for India to administer the second coronavirus dose, there was a huge debate as to the ideal window to provide coronavirus vaccine. Since the coronavirus pandemic was unprecedented, there was no concrete information on the same and it remained an evolving knowledge. However, the second wave resulted in a large number of deaths, causing the government to push the second dose. The daily fluctuations to the ideal time frame to receive vaccines is one cause of the current situation.

Then in January 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the pandemic was past us and India has successfully evaded the coronavirus disaster which will be a model for other countries. India had achieved good coverage of two doses and the mortality and admissions for severe cases got reduced. Even when new mutations of the Omicron variant of coronavirus started to come, people had become lax and the fear of the second wave had also passed. The new mutations were not as lethal and only caused mild symptoms, leaving a window to evade booster doses, Dr Antony K R, Advisor at Public Health Policy and Health Systems said.

While initially all vaccines were considered some sort of magic pill with the ability to completely erase coronavirus from the face of the earth, it later appeared that they failed to achieve the same. Reinfections were caused, symptoms happened to people who had received both doses. This also led to people losing faith in the efficacy of vaccines which were no longer seen as a holy grail. Moreover, two doses were just enough to lower the chances of death caused by coronavirus.

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Is Covid vaccine booster dose necessary

While a majority of the Indians received the second dose over nine months ago, studies at ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) and other international research institutions suggest that antibody levels start to wane around six months after the primary vaccination with both doses. This necessitates giving booster doses as it increases the immune response and boosts India’s fight against the coronavirus by adding another layer of safety.

Not all are not willing to buy this argument. Dr Antony says that the current government drive for vaccination as a “precautionary dose” is “fear-induced” as the vaccination drive in the US and European countries, along with many medical studies, did not generate any evidence for increased protection with the third and fourth doses against the disease. Though it may raise the neutralising antibody levels, it won’t make a significant impact on the sustained cell-mediated immunity levels or protection against symptomatic reinfection. That is the reason for the poor response to precautionary dose campaign. The government on the other hand does not want another lockdown or what the country saw during the second wave of the pandemic.

The Union health ministry also reduced the gap between the second and precaution dose of Covid-19 vaccine from nine to six months after a recommendation from the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. So far, 96% of the Indian population have been administered the first dose of Covid vaccine and 87% of the people have taken both the doses. The precaution doses of Covid-19 vaccines to all aged above 18 years were green flagged in April this year.

Even when the government has given a thumbs up to the inoculation drive, the recent development in India’s vaccination programme comes at a time when the Union health ministry revealed shocking data. According to the same, nearly 594 million adults in India are now late for precaution shots. This is around 90% of the eligible Indian population for the booster dose. The high number of delayed vaccinations might have been a cause for the government move to provide free vaccination.

Currently, Covid-19 vaccines are the best protection against the virus even though the cases have gone down and infections have become milder. This becomes especially relevant considering the new Omicron variant and its sub variants BA.4 and BA.5 are gaining more ground and booster shots are the safest bet. At present, India has an active Covid case burden of 1.32 lakh. Over 5.02 crore third doses have been administered so far across the country. This number is inclusive of the doses administered to 59.26 lakh healthcare workers, 1.11 crore frontline workers and 2.67 crore of the elderly population.

The need of the hour is a vaccine that is effective against the evolving virus strains and currently, no available vaccine fits the bill. There is no evidence that the existing vaccines can do that. The educated crowd may be of the opinion that they can probably wait for a better vaccine which is more effective and targets the whole virus of evolving strains and not just the presently available vaccine that targets spike protein or m-RNA.

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Prachi Gupta is an Assistant Editor with Policy Circle. She is a post graduate in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College For Women, Delhi University. Prachi started her career as a correspondent with financialexpress.com. She specialises in policy impact studies.