Covid vaccination voluntary, Centre tells Supreme Court
The Centre informed the Supreme Court on Monday that while Covid-19 vaccination is voluntary, any misconceived doubts or motivated propaganda against it can lead to vaccine hesitancy at a crucial period when all efforts are being made by central and state governments to vaccinate every individual.
The affidavit was filed in response to a petition filed by Jacob Pulayil, a former member of the national technical advisory group on immunization (NTAGI) – the apex body on immunization. The petitioner has challenged the vaccine mandates issued by states making vaccination compulsory to access workplaces and benefits under government schemes, besides raising an issue of personal autonomy. It further sought segregated data for each of the phases of clinical trials undertaken concerning the Covid vaccines administered in the country.
The Centre said, “There are very few cases where purported public interest litigation (whether bonafide or motivated) harms public interest directly. This is one such petition which, if entertained, would harm public interest…. Any misgivings and misconceived doubts and motivated propaganda against vaccination can only result in a potential threat of setting vaccine hesitancy again, which will not be in the public interest.”
The affidavit filed by central drugs standard control organization (CDSCO) joint drugs controller PBN Prasad also revealed the government’s stand on vaccine mandate. It said, “As per the operational guidelines document, Covid-19 vaccination is voluntary. However, it is emphasized and encouraged that all individuals take vaccination for public health and in his/her interest as well as public interest since in case of a pandemic, an individual’s ill health has a direct effect on the society.”
The CDSCO, working under the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW), also denied the allegations by the petitioner that Covid-19 vaccination is linked to any benefits or services and said, “He (petitioner) has chosen to give a false picture before this court for the reasons best known to him. In the process, however, he has raised a false alarm and warning against efforts of the nation to combat an unprecedented tragedy faced by the human race. Such an attempt is to be viewed very seriously at a time when the Central Government, all State Governments and Union Territories are individually and collectively making all possible efforts to vaccinate every individual.”
The petitioner, represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan, disputed the position on the ground. “Centre on affidavit has said there is no mandate on Covid vaccines. But there are instances to show orders passed by states making it mandatory,” Bhushan said, referring to news reports from Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra where unvaccinated have been advised to remain home. He pointed out that Delhi has issued a mandate for government servants reporting for work to be vaccinated while Madhya Pradesh has denied subsidized food grains to unvaccinated persons.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the government, said, “It is with great difficulty that we have overcome vaccine hesitancy in this country. Many persons have benefited from vaccination not only in the country, but across the world. This court should avoid allowing this platform to be used for extraneous purposes.”
Appearing along with additional solicitor general (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati, Mehta said that once the Centre can show to the Court that a statutory regime exists for certification and permission to administer any drug/vaccine, the petition should be dismissed as further examination of the matter would not fall within the scope of judicial review.
The bench of justices L Nageswara Rao and BR Gavai made it clear that vaccine mandates by individual states cannot be decided in abstract and require to be challenged separately by the petitioner. Addressing Centre’s concerns, the judges said, “We do not want to add to the concerns of vaccine hesitancy. We have made this clear at the first hearing itself.”
The Court posted the matter for hearing on December 13 as it was yet to receive the Centre’s affidavit. Bhushan informed the bench that by the next date, he will file applications challenging the mandates issued by various states for Court to issue notice and know their stand.
Even on the study on adverse effects, the affidavit stated that out of the total doses of Covid-19 vaccine administered till November 24, a total of 2,116 serious and severe adverse events following immunization (AEFI) have been reported. A report of rapid review and analysis has been submitted to NEGVAC (National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19) for 1,356 (1,236 Covishield, 118 Covaxin and 2 Sputnik) severe AEFI cases, while the remaining cases are still under review.
The Court, while issuing notice on the petition on August 9 was conscious of vaccine hesitancy in rural areas and said, “Our apprehension is that a detailed enquiry into this issue will amount to throwing a spanner into what already exists leading to more doubts.”