Plan booster doses better
From this week, the first of Indian citizens will be administered their third doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. People above the age of 60 and those in frontline and health care jobs are eligible to get what the government calls precautionary doses if their primary vaccination course was completed more than nine months ago. Most of those immediately eligible for are likely to be people in at-risk jobs and elderly Covaxin recipients, which has a shorter dose interval. According to data from the health ministry’s press releases on vaccination, the number of people eligible immediately could be a little over 12 million, based on the total number of second doses given as on April 10, exactly nine months ago. Had the gap been six months, as it is in most countries, this number would have been close to 45 million.
The expansion comes when the country is in the middle of its third wave of infections. The first of the hot spot regions, Delhi and Mumbai, offer some positive signs — hospitals have not been overwhelmed like they were during the previous wave, and the rate at which cases are accelerating appears to be nearing a plateau. These two cities are likely to cross their Omicron-driven peaks in a few weeks. Other large cities, tier-II towns and more rural areas will be up next as hot spots, consistent with past trends when the virus fans out from densely populated urban areas. Considering the experience of other Omicron-hit countries, it is realistic to assume that by late-February, the worst of the third wave will be over.
And it is in this context the new phase of Covid-19 vaccinations needs to be seen. In its current form, with the nine-month gap, the so-called precautionary doses might be somewhat futile for health care workers. Staff shortages at hospitals in Delhi and Mumbai offer a compelling argument that they should have been covered sooner, perhaps as soon as the threat of a new variant became real in early December. Moreover, hardly any substantial portion of the elderly general population will be covered by the time the wave has receded from the rest of the country. It is a completely different matter that neither of these delays will be of significant consequence because the variant itself is less virulent. But future variants may not be as forgiving — and the government would do well to keep that in mind when evaluating booster doses for the rest of the population.