On December 2, 2020, the UK became the first country in the west to license a fully tested COVID-19 vaccine. The regulatory body of the UK has given emergency approval to the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, and the general public will start getting the vaccine in the second week of December.
The approval is being hailed as a big win against a pandemic that has infected over 6.5 crore (65 million) people, claimed more than 15 lakh (1.5 million) lives, triggered an economic crisis, and changed the way people lead their lives, across the world. Other countries, including India, are also expected to follow suit and grant emergency approval to successful COVID-19 vaccines. This could be the much-needed turning point in the global fight against COVID-19, and one that will herald the end of the pandemic.
COVID-19: Timeline and impact
- The early cases of a novel Coronavirus disease were first detected in Wuhan, China in late-2019.
- In India, the first case of novel Coronavirus was detected in Kerala on January 30, 2020. On the same day, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
- On February 11, 2020, an official name for the disease was announced - Coronavirus disease 2019, abbreviated as COVID-19. By the end of February, more than 2,800 people had died from COVID-19, globally.
- The outbreak was declared a pandemic by the global health body in March 2020. The WHO requested people to stay indoors and asked everyone to wear masks, practice physical distancing, and wash or sanitize their hands frequently.
- The same month, several countries imposed lockdowns to curb the spread of the infection. In India, the government announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 24. It was later extended in phases till May 31.
- In India, lockdown triggered the closure of schools, businesses, shops, malls, hotels, religious places, sports and recreation centers, and a ban on public transport.
- The lockdown period and its aftermath saw the emergence of several new trends. These included work from home, online school, growth in telemedicine, and enhanced virtual interactions. Since then, these trends have become part of the ‘new normal’.
- From June 1, the lockdown restrictions were lifted in several parts of India as part of the “unlock strategy”. Subsequent iterations of “unlock” have set in motion the gradual lifting of restrictions throughout the country.
- As of December 4, India has recorded more than 95 lakh (9.5 million) cases of COVID-19 infection. So far, more than 1.3 lakh Indians have lost their lives to the deadly contagion.
COVID-19 vaccine development
Scientists had started developing vaccines for SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), the respiratory illnesses caused by viruses belonging to the same Coronavirus family, during their outbreaks in 2003 and 2012. However, the efforts were abandoned when the outbreaks receded.
This earlier experience aided the scientists in accelerating the development of COVID-19 vaccines in record time. Supported by national governments and international bodies such as WHO, leading pharmaceutical companies and medical research institutes across the world swung into action even before the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic. By March, vaccine development was being carried out on war footing.
As of December 2, 2020, as many as 51 vaccine candidates are being clinically evaluated in different countries. Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca have shared the phase 3 trial data of their vaccine candidates, demonstrating impressive results with 70-95% efficacy against the virus.
In India, pharma companies such as Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila are also working on indigenous vaccine candidates, which are entering phase 3 trials. Pune-Based Serum Institute of India (SII) has partnered with the University of Oxford-Astrazeneca to license and manufacture their vaccine as ‘Covishield’ in the country and is hoping for emergency approval in December.
COVID-19 latest infection trends
Since the beginning of October 2020, there has been a steady decline in the number of daily cases of COVID-19. However, seasonal aspects like the festive rush, an increase in air pollution, and a drop in temperatures have caused a resurgent spike in cases, in some parts of the country. Experts suggest that the new infections in November and December will likely remain less than the daily figures witnessed in September.
Serological surveys conducted in different parts of India such as Bangalore, Dharavi, Assam, Orissa, etc., have found that a significant percentage of the population living in these regions has already developed antibodies indicating past infection. However, the percentage of people with antibodies in these regions is far below the threshold levels required to achieve herd immunity. Therefore, scientists have ruled out relying only on infections to acquire herd immunity. As a result, a mass COVID-19 vaccination program appears to be the only way to end this pandemic.
COVID-19 vaccine procurement and administration
To meet the large domestic requirement of vaccines, the Indian government is likely to procure vaccine doses from both domestic manufacturers such as Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech, Zydus Cadila, as well as international players. India reportedly tops the list of countries that have pre-booked vaccines and has confirmed to purchase more than 150 crore (1.5 billion) doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Starting in the new year, the Indian government is planning to immunize 25 to 30 crore people by July 2021 under the first phase of the COVID-19 vaccination program. The priority beneficiaries will include doctors and healthcare workers, frontline workers, people over 50, and those with comorbidities. The remaining population will be gradually covered under the immunization program.
The government is expected to work with the private sector to take on this task, at massive scale. Apollo hospitals, for instance, announced recently that it is prepared to administer 1 million COVID-19 vaccines a day. The group will leverage its robust pan India network of 19 medicine supply hubs with cold chain facilities and use its 70 hospitals, 400 clinics and 4000 pharmacies to ensure massive administration capacity of Covid-19 vaccines. Other players are also expected to follow suit.
Prospects in spring 2021
From spring 2021, it is expected that a combination of the vaccination outcomes and antibodies acquired from natural infections will induce some amount of herd immunity in the population. This will hopefully manifest in a positive trend and we may witness a significant decline in the active cases in India. That said, some experts are also cautioning that there could be second and third waves of COVID-19 infections, and we must therefore not let our guard down for several months.
The approval of the vaccines by the drug regulatory authorities is only the first step in the right direction. In order to end the pandemic, a number of challenges pertaining to cost, logistics, and equitable distribution will have to be overcome. Until then, people will need to remain vigilant and practice what is expected of them. It is quite clear that the collective efforts of the government and the people will hold the key to ending this long drawn and painful pandemic.