Pfizer seeks permission to import and distribute Covid-19 vaccine in India

The permission has to be considered in the context of Bharat Biotech candidate Covaxin facing flak following Haryana Minister testing Covid positive after participating in trial
Pfizer seeks permission to import and distribute Covid-19 vaccine in India
Christian Emmer

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has sought permission to allow their Covid-19 vaccine in India. This is very unusual since only companies that have attempted trials in the country are given permission for usage. The company has asked the Centre to allow them to import the vaccine to the sub-continent and distribute it within.

The UK government had, last week, given the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine emergency approval. They will start rollout this week, and it will be available to hospitals first. The country has ordered around 40 million doses for the express purpose of thwarting the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the same is not easily applicable to India.

One, the vaccine is expensive to purchase and a mass buy could be discouraged because we have regional contenders who are planning to release it for a lower price. Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, Serum Institute of India’s Novavax and AstraZeneca’s Covax — once they are available — are planned for lower rates going well below the Rs 500 mark. The Pfizer vaccine could easily cross the Rs 1,000 mark.

The second problem is the logistics aspect. The first process would be to import the vaccine and depending on the deal struck the price could go up or down. The second would be storage. Seeing as how the company has explicitly demanded very specific instructions for storage and use, the breathing space is limited for the nation. The vaccine would require to be stored at -70C (-94F) and will only last five days in a regular fridge. The vaccine can only be moved a limited number of times after having stored it and will last barely a few days after defrosting. Everything has to be done manually, and the temperature has to be triple checked.

Considering all these aspects, the practical use of Pfizer vaccine for the whole nation doesn’t sound as sweet a deal, even though it is a promising candidate. Moreover, the vaccine won’t be able to reach as many of the masses and isn’t a profitable deal since many candidates within the nation are close to success and will be available cheaper. Another problem to consider is India’s lack of resources to properly store, transport, and use the Pfizer vaccine, which comes with rigid conditions.

However, while AIIMS, ICMR, and our scientists are hopeful of a reproducible and safe vaccine by the end of the year or the beginning of 2021, things took a cynical turn yesterday. Haryana Health Minister Anil Vij had tweeted on Saturday that he had tested positive for Covid-19.

While it might not sound that scary, the minister was one of the first few candidates to be administered Covaxin on November 20 for the phase 3 trials, according to Union Ministry. This has kicked up a storm in the public space concerning the efficacy of the vaccines.

Haryana Minister Anil Vij participating in the Covaxin trial
Haryana Minister Anil Vij participating in the Covaxin trial

However, Bharat Biotech has taken to Twitter to explain the associated problems. One, the vaccine’s efficacy can be determined only two weeks after the second dose. The vaccine follows a two-dose system scheduled 28 days apart. Second, the phase 3 trial is a double-blind regiment where neither the experimenters nor the candidates know if they are getting the vaccine or a placebo. This is to avoid experimenter bias in the process.

However, Vij had claimed on November 19 that he would be getting the vaccine dose, pushing some to believe that he might have received the vaccine and not a placebo. Experts have split on the issue. Some believe that Vij made the claim without being fully aware of the process and that he doesn’t realise that he might not have gotten the vaccine. However, some say that despite the claims, the fact that he got Covid amidst the trial is concerning and the researchers must first determine whether it is an adverse effect, a failing, or a coincidence.

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