NEW DELHI: A fresh controversy erupted over India’s Covid-19 vaccine timelines with a department of science and technology (DST) press release first mentioning and then deleting a reference to the antidote being unlikely to be ready for mass use before 2021.
Days after an Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) communication to participating institutes that the Bharat Biotech vaccine should be ready for launch for public health use by August 15 sparked concerns over ethical and medical issues, the print-and-retract fiasco only made matters worse for the government.
The DST press release was essentially an academic tract explaining the various vaccine options being developed around the world and the regulatory approvals to two Indian companies among 11 candidates that have entered human trial stage. But it ended with the observation that none of the vaccines was likely to be available before 2021.
Seen in the light of ICMR’s clarification on Saturday that it was not seeking to short-circuit due processes, the DST release seemed to further set the record straight. However, the decision to delete the 2021 reference only fuelled speculation why the release was edited. The reason perhaps was that DST sought to strike an optimistic note, that with regulatory approvals for human testing, there was a “silver line in the dark clouds” that would mark “the beginning of the end”.
In a letter on July 2, ICMR director general Balram Bhargava had said the government aimed to launch India’s first locally made vaccine against Covid-19 for public health use by August 15 and asked clinical trial sites for Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin to fast-track processes to meet the timeline. A day later, ICMR clarified that it was seeking to cut red tape and not get around safety measures and made no reference to the August 15 deadline.
While the July 2 letter stirred the medical and scientific community, public health experts questioned the ethics and credibility of ICMR’s position. In this context, the initial statement from the DST saying a vaccine was unlikely to be launched by 2021 attracted attention and was seen as further course-correction.
“With the announcement of Covaxin by Bharat Biotech and ZyCov-D vaccine by Zydus Cadila, the proverbial silver line in the dark clouds of Covid-19 appears at the horizon. Now, the nod given by the Drug Controller General of India for conduct of human trial for the vaccines marks the beginning of the end,” the DST statement said.
It added that India had emerged as a significant vaccine manufacturing hub and local companies accounted for 60% of vaccine supplies made to Unicef. “The vaccine for novel coronavirus may be developed anywhere in the world, but without Indian manufacturers involved, the production of required quantity is not going to be feasible,” it said.


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