When my friends in America and UK started posting selfies as they were given the COVID-19 vaccine, I started asking myself, “Mera number kab ayega?” (When will my turn come?). The reason for my impatience was not about the selfie but the result of my hope and confidence in my country and its scientists. When the day finally arrived, I rolled up my sleeves and submitted myself to the person administering the vaccine. In my excitement I did not even feel the needle prick. But I did hear the vaccinator mutter, “Ya Konjok Sumbo Khen!”(O Gods, you know everything!)
Photos of healthcare workers (HCW) receiving the vaccine started flooding social media. HCWs were encouraged to be active on social media to spread a positive message about the COVID-19 vaccine. Such public action helps allay hesitation that may exist about such vaccines in a community. It helps people realise that the vaccine is safe and that it should not be feared. It is said that many people may not trust the government or any institution but they do trust the HCWs with whom they have direct contact. The photos of HCWs receiving the jab became so commonplace that people started making jokes about it. For instance, there were light-hearted suggestions that the government should give the second dose on the buttocks to prevent people from taking a selfie! A friend posted a photograph of him receiving the vaccine and wrote that a DNA chip was inserted in his body and added wryly that he was “still a human and had not turned into a mutant”. He possibly wanted to allay fears that the vaccination is a means by which the government will started controlling people through a microchip. I have heard some people claim that such vaccines induce sterility. I often wonder that if such a miracle was possible, then the government would use it immediately to control the feral dog population. Furthermore, if such a medical miracle was possible then the world’s population would not have tripled in the last 30 years. Needless to say, no such medication exists.
Vaccine hesitancy is a complex process. Some think or claim vaccines are a part of a larger conspiracy, while others claim it is part of private commercial interests, especially pharmaceutical companies. Yet others think there are alternatives. Thus, there are numerous misconceptions about vaccines. It is said that vaccines are victims of their own success. Several killer diseases no longer pose the same fatal threat to humans as they did in the past and have been rendered harmless by vaccines. However, each time we fall short in our vaccination efforts, the diseases create havoc once more. A good example of this is measles, which has claimed many lives even in developed countries every time vaccine coverage has suffered.
People don’t want to be the first person receiving a vaccine but also don’t want to be excluded. When the vaccine was first announced, there were messages on social media that politicians should be vaccinated first. If nothing happens to them the vaccine is safe and if something happens to them then people are safe! Such messages were written to question the vaccine’s safety. However, everyone agreed that HCWs should be vaccinated on a priority basis. This was a natural choice. But HCWs are human too and also experience fear of new things. So when India decided that HCWs will be vaccinated first, there was a diversity of reactions. We saw bureaucrats assuring doctors that the vaccine is safe rather than the other way around. However, when Greece started vaccinating politicians and bureaucrats before HCWs there was a backlash. Thus, vaccinating HCWs first seems like a logical approach.
It is not surprising that on 16 January, 2021 when India started vaccinating HCWs in the early hours, many people who were scheduled to be vaccinated simply did not turn up or found an excuse to be ‘late’. However, once they saw that people who were vaccinated did not have any unpleasant reactions many people started turning up towards the later half of the day.
As a healthcare worker, I agree with India’s decision to first vaccinate its HCWs. For me it’s a privilege, a shot in the arm that is a form of recognition and appreciation to HCWs who stoically faced the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and helped care for infected individuals. Secondly, since this a new vaccine that is going to be administered on a large scale, it is important that HCWs are aware of potential side-effects that they can report and receive treatment immediately. This is my personal opinion.
Every country’s government is under pressure to vaccinate its citizens as soon as possible. Similarly, we have witnessed various forms of vaccine nationalism during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not surprising that many feel that this vaccine has been produced under pressure and thus may not be safe or effective. Even if this were true, I cannot help but wonder why a government would administer an unsafe vaccine to its citizens? If any untoward incident were to occur, the government would face a backlash from its citizens.
There were other people who claimed that the vaccine is safe as it is just distilled water. I am an HCW and I have received the vaccine. I know for a fact that distilled water injections are rather painful. I can vouch for the fact that this vaccine wasn’t as painful as distilled water! Furthermore, I developed muscle pain, mild body aches and a mild sore throat after receiving the vaccine. These symptoms disappeared after a day. All these symptoms are associated with COVID-19. It makes logical sense as vaccinations are meant to produce a mild reaction of the disease to trigger the immune system to produce antibodies. Thus, I am sure that the vaccine is not only safe but also effective.
I understand people’s scepticism and fears. This vaccine has been developed in the shortest time in the history of medical science. It was developed and completed trials in less than a year. Other vaccines have been known to take around five to 10 years of development and trials. What we seem to forget is that this vaccine development did not start with the appearance of SARS-CoV-2. In fact, a lot of research and development had already been done for SARS CoV-1 and MERS. This development was halted as the circulation of these viruses had stopped. This provided the necessary foundation for the development of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Thus, everything was ready and pre-clinical trials had already been done. The only piece of the puzzle that was missing to start the process was the virus.
I will say that I trust the vaccine as I know how such vaccines are developed. Though the Phase 3 trial data has not released in its entirety to the public, the data that was available was enough to convince me that it was not only safe but also effective. Furthermore, it is currently being administered as “emergency use authorisation” due to the ongoing pandemic. This means more data will emerge now. I will trust the transparency and authenticity of such data as long as the studies are not mere eulogies. Many side effects were also mentioned in the data available in the public domain though it later emerged that these were not directly related to the vaccine. Medicine keeps on evolving and as it is evidence-based. American scientist and writer, Issac Asimov once wrote, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”.
We have to trust science and in the process of vaccination development while also retaining a healthy and reasonable level of scepticism. However, mistrust to the point of cynicism is invariably harmful.
“Ya Konjok Sumbo Khen!”, the vaccinators prayers is still ringing in my ears. She probably repeated the prayer throughout the day with the hope that the vaccine does not cause harm to anyone and serves its intended purpose. In a way, it reflects the general scepticism we all have. However, we all know that we are in the middle of a pandemic and can only fall back on science.
By Dr Spalchen Gonbo
Dr Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Leh.