It is a long story, indeed. And it started long before 3 January 2021, when Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) gave emergency approval to two indigenously developed Covid-19 vaccines, PM Modi called it a proud moment for the country and the much-awaited announcement surprisingly snowballed into Covishield Vs Covaxin controversy.
The seeds of this clamour, out of growing impatience to get rid of the pandemic situation, were sown on 2 December 2020, when the United Kingdom first approved Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, jumping ahead of the United States in the race, which authorised the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine nine days later on 11 December 2020.
By this time, the rumour mill was in overdrive in India, claiming that the proposal for emergency use of the vaccines, made by the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, had been rejected due to inadequate data, forcing the Health ministry to come forward and deny the claim. While the rumour broke hearts, the government’s denial bolstered the hopes again.
After the vaccine approval in the United States, the govt was under tremendous pressure as it had assured people that the vaccination drive would kick off by the end of January 2021.
Finally, living up to people’s expectations, three days into the new year, the Indian Drug regulator declared that Serum Institute’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin vaccines have been authorised for restricted emergency use in the country.
Even though the people waited for this news with bated breath, the announcement, on the contrary, sparked a row, with many calling it a rushed approval. Concerns were raised over the green signal to Bharat Biotech’s Covaxine before the completion of trials.
While the health experts expressed shock calling it a rushed approval by the government, the Bharat Biotech defended the process, saying that the vaccine fulfilled five parameters after Phase II trials, which was enough under Indian laws for emergency approval. The biotech company also assured to complete the Phase III trials soon and submit the efficacy data by the month of February.
Meanwhile, a war of words erupted between SII CEO Adar Poonawalla and Bharat Biotech Chairman and Managing Director Krishna Ella, both started to dispute the approval of each other’s vaccines. Adar Poonawalla claimed that besides Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, being produced by SII in India, only Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have cleared all evaluations and the other vaccine candidates are ‘safe like water’ as their efficacy has not been evaluated yet.
Upset Bharat Biotech Chairman Krishna Ella took potshots at Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine trials, referring to the accidental dosing error in the UK that caught the attention of the media a while ago, and said a similar trial in India would have got his company shut down.
He also expressed his anguish over AIIMS Director Randeep Guleria remarks, who suggested that Covaxin will be used as a backup to tackle a sudden rise in Covid-19 cases or in case of any doubt on the efficacy of Covishield.
With the two approved vaccine candidates adamant on damaging each other’s reputation and skepticism around the vaccines growing every day in the country, the situation, nevertheless, became embarrassing for the government.
In that scenario, it came as a relief that SII’s Adar Poonawalla and Bharat Biotech’s Krishna Ella publicly set aside their differences on Tuesday, and jointly pledged to manufacture and supply the COVID-19 vaccines for India and the world.