India's quick nod to homegrown COVID-19 vaccine seeds doubt

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FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, file photo, a health worker checks a syringe before performing a trial run of COVID-19 vaccine delivery system, as India's prepare to kick off the coronavirus vaccination drive on Jan. 16, in Gauhati, India. There has been growing apprehensions among health care workers after India took a regulatory shortcut to approve a vaccine by Indian drugmaker Bharat Biotech before late clinical trials showed it was effective in preventing illness from coronavirus infections. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath, File)

NEW DELHI – As the director of a large hospital in the Indian state that has seen the country's most coronavirus cases, Dr. S.P. Kalantri had been waiting for the day a vaccine would be approved and bring protection not only to his community but also himself.

But now he has his doubts about getting the shots after India took a regulatory shortcut to approve a vaccine by Indian drugmaker Bharat Biotech before late clinical trials showed it was effective in preventing illness from coronavirus infections.

“I’d rather wait and watch,” said Kalantri, who runs a hospital in Maharashtra state's Wardha district.

He's not alone. Several groups and unions representing scientists and doctors have also expressed their concerns over scant evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Many scientists have said that approving a vaccine without evidence from late trials is risky and a lack of transparency in the approval process could increase vaccine hesitancy in the world’s second-most populated country, where more than 10.4 million coronavirus cases have been reported among the nearly 1.4 billion people.

The homegrown vaccine was one of two that India authorized for emergency use on Jan. 3. The approval for the other — a version of the AstraZeneca vaccine made by world's largest vaccine maker Serum Institute of India — was given on the basis of partial results from studies in Britain and Brazil that suggested it was about 70% effective at preventing illness from coronavirus infection.

Initially, a member of India’s COVID-19 task force said that the Bharat Biotech vaccine would be a “backup.” But on Jan. 5, health officials said it would be given to people after getting their consent and ensuring more frequent follow-ups, suggesting both vaccines will be deployed. It remains unclear as to which states will receive which vaccine and on what basis.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has touted the vaccines as evidence of India's growing self-reliance due to its protectionist policies.