WATCH: Vaccine side effects rare even in senior citizens: Epidemiologist Dr Muliyil

Vaccine developers have managed to enroll fairly large number of senior citizens in the study - not large enough but fairly large - and the efficacy looks good for senior citizens in preventing serious diseases and death.

India is entering the second phase of the Covid-19 vaccination drive. In an announcement by Union Minister Prakash Javadekar on Wednesday, senior citizens, or those above 60 years, will receive the vaccination starting March 1, 2021. This phase will also vaccinate those above 45 years of age with comorbidities.

Vaccination will be provided free of cost at 10,000 government centres and on payment across 20,000 private centres. Whether these private centres will be hospitals or nursing homes as well is not yet known.

Epidemiologist Dr JP Muliyil spoke to Money9’s Kartik Malhotra on this development. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Kartik Malhotra: India saw a shortfall in the daily number of vaccine shots administered in Phase 1 that began on January 16, 2021 against the target numbers. What learning should be transported from Phase 1 to Phase 2 to ensure large-scale vaccination does go through this time.

JP Muliyil: There is nothing surprising. We are dealing with human beings and not animals. We have to be sure we give them proper information and win their trust by behaving in a manner that we show concern and care. Very often, in a hurry to reach targets, we overlook these issues. We have faced problems in the past with vaccination too. Like we have overcome vaccination challenges in the past, we will overcome them this time too.

KM: Do you think the concerns about the efficacy of the vaccination valid at all?

JPM: Everybody who has had a covid infection and has survived, the natural immunity has lasted long. We expect the vaccine to be very immunogenic and last long in terms of the ability to protect.

KM: What do you make of the new variants and the mutations of Covid-19?

JPM: We are yet to discover a bug that doesn’t mutate. Creating fear is not a good approach. Mutations will come and that is a reality. Most of these mutations respond favourably to the vaccine and previous infection. India has a huge herd immunity with previous infection so most of these mutations will not touch us. One day a mutation may emerge that needs a new approach and a new vaccine. India has had low casualties – just 10% of the expected numbers. We need to win over the human mind, not targets.

KM: If we don’t push for a vaccination drive, will be put a larger population at risk with not enough vaccination.

JPM: There is no public threat if no one gets vaccinated. Even a vaccinated person can spread the bugs. What we need to tell people is that don’t take the vaccine for the neighbour’s sake. Take it to protect yourself against the infection.

KM: With senior citizens more at risk, should the vaccine have been first administered on the younger population before the older folks?

JPM: Impact of the diseases has been the same across all age groups. Vaccine developers have managed to enroll fairly large number of senior citizens in the study – not large enough but fairly large – and the efficacy looks good for senior citizens in preventing serious diseases and death.

KM: Have you taken the vaccine?

JPM: Yes

KM: What’s your advise to senior citizens? Should they go ahead and take the vaccine?

JPM: Very frail and elderly people should take the vaccine under doctor’s advice individually so that there is backup support available should it be needed.

KM: What are the common side effects and when does one know that these are serious enough to take medical action?

JPM: Side effects are fairly rare in these vaccines. That’s one good thing about it. They are so rare that in a million doses, you will have just a few. But this is still not an issue we cannot wish away.

KM: Will the time gap between the two doses be the same for senior citizens?

JPM: There doesn’t seem to be any change in the protocol. We have learned that a little delay also doesn’t matter and it may be better. As a rule, the second dose after a one month gap from the first is okay.

KM: Will free vaccine drive more numbers to the government vaccination centres?

JPM: Many government centres did well in the first phase. They were clean, they were hygienic and the staff was friendly. I hope this continues Phase 2 as well.

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