On the day India marked the 100-crore Covid-19 vaccine milestone, Niti Aayog Chief Executive Officer Amitabh Kant said a potential third wave has been warded off because of the pace of the vaccination programme.

Speaking to Moneycontrol over the phone on October 21, Kant said the achievement was a result of political will, work put in by the health workers as well as India’s manufacturing prowess.

One of the closest advisers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kant said the coronavirus would become endemic and would require a shot every five months in the long run. The country needs to build capacity so that cheaper and large quantities of vaccines are available. Edited excerpts of the interview:

Given the slow start, initial hiccups and supply issues, how big an achievement is 100-crore vaccine doses?

This is a very major achievement and it is because of every health and frontline worker that we have reached here. There have been a billion doses, and at the peak, we were administering per day more than the population of Australia. This demonstrated the political and administrative will to deliver on a large vaccination program like this, and it shows that the momentum has been maintained over a period of time.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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We have achieved something which no other country in the world has achieved. We have warded off the third wave only because of our vaccination programme. Spreading it out to villages, to rural areas in a country as large as ours presented its own challenges but we overcame them and that is why this is a huge achievement.

Did it also help that India did not have naysayers and vaccine deniers in large numbers that we are seeing in the West, especially in the United States?

I think a lot of credit must go to the political leadership for that. The Prime Minister himself led from the front, also the fact that we had a severe the second wave, which made people realise how deadly this virus could be. Therefore, everybody wanted to play safe and there was no vaccine hesitancy, and people went and took the vaccination. And second, I think Indians are used to vaccines. Be it polio to flu, we are all used to shots right from childhood. So, that helped a lot.

What are the challenges that remain?

In a very major movement like this, there will be challenges and the challenges will keep coming. We should keep accelerating the pace, and ensure that we are able to cover double doses with the entire population, including those below 18. My view is that this will become endemic. So we will require a shot every five months, sort of a booster shot, in the long run. This virus will become endemic and therefore, the country needs to build up capacity, vaccines should be available at cheaper costs, and in larger numbers.

We are the only country in the world that has just come out with a DNA vaccine. An mRNA vaccine is also being developed. So a lot of innovation is taking place in the country. We are the only country in the world that has been able to produce to the size and scale of our requirements. And I will give a lot of credit to Serum Institute of India for the work they have done.

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