BHOPAL, India--In his creaky one-room brick house with a tile roof, Jitendra Narwariya, 45, a 1984 Union Carbide gas leak survivor has not stepped out for the past one month. A sole breadwinner for the family of four, Narwariya grew weak and was rendered bedridden two days after he got the first shot of Covaxin on Dec 10 last year.
He is one among more than 1000 people in the city who have participated in the ongoing phase-3 trials of Covaxin by Bharat Biotech at Peoples hospital in Bhopal.
Many trial participants, including the 1984 gas leak survivors told VICE World News they did not know it was a trial and they were not given consent forms. Some said they thought they were participating in a free medical checkup.
Bharat Biotech which has developed the indigenous vaccine in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research started the trial in Bhopal in the last week of November.
On the night of Dec 2 in 1984, a toxic gas (methyl isocyanate) leaked from the pesticides plant of Union Carbide, located on the outskirts of the city. While the government claims that 5295 people died in one of the world’s largest industrial disasters, rights bodies estimate the toll to be much higher. Even after three decades, the newborns of gas leak survivors have unusually high rates of birth defects.
They reside in dozens of colonies in the city, located in the vicinity of the now-defunct Union Carbide factory. The majority of them work in unorganised sectors and live below the poverty line (less than $2 a day).
Demonstrators chant slogans as they burn an effigy representing former Union Carbide Chief Warren Anderson during a demonstration in Bhopal to mark the 22nd anniversary of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak. Photo courtesy Stringer/AFP.
Residents claimed that a vehicle auto-rickshaw roaming in the narrow lanes of their locality assured free treatment for cold, cough, arthritis apart from a free medical test and a cheque worth INR 750 ($ 10.25).
For Narwariya, a daily wage labourer, the money offered was twice what makes in a day. He could not resist.
According to Narwariya, details of his aadhar (social security number), blood samples and thumb impression were collected. “A doctor told me that a vaccine will be administered and it has no side effects. No one before or after my visit to the hospital told me it was a coronavirus vaccine trial,” said Narwariya.
In addition to the cheque, he was handed over a diary to keep a track of his health updates.
On Dec, 12, two days after getting the shot, Narwariya said he had fever, cough and faced difficulty in breathing.
He rushed to the hospital where he was given the shot. Doctors told him to get an X-ray done, followed by another test. The amount for both—INR 600 ($8)—was too much for Narwaria. “I returned home without getting the test done,” he said, adding that he had developed symptoms of typhoid.
“Every law in the rule book to conduct the Covaxin trial has been overlooked in Bhopal and sheer irregularities are coming to light,” Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Action for information group, an NGO that works for gas-hit survivors, told VICE World News. “The hospital hardly takes any follow-ups from those participants who have been facing side effects of the vaccine.”
A disabled child of a survivor of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak tragedy during a protest in New Delhi in May 2008. Photo courtesy Manpreet Romana/AFP..
Like Narwariya, Kamla Bai, 70, another gas-leak survivor went to the Peoples hospital with her son, Santosh, after one of her neighbours told her she could get COVID vaccine for free along with money.
Kamla Bai and Santosh took the shots on Dec 17. “After the paper-work, the doctor informed us that we are part of the trial. He also briefed us about the side effects,” Kamala Bai told VICE World News.
But she denied having received a copy of the consent form she signed during the process.
She said she is supposed to get the next shot on Jan, 17. “We are entirely fit and fine. Nothing has happened to us,” said Kamla Bai.
Ratan Goliya, 80, a Bhopal gas tragedy survivor and trial participant, who took the shot after one of his neighbours said that free Covid-19 vaccines are being given at Peoples hospital with a hefty amount of money, was not aware of the very concept of the consent form and was lured by the money he would be getting for volunteering. “I got the first shot on December 14 and since then my hands and legs are numb, having stomach pain and giddy. But, no one helped.”
“They have called me on January 9 for another shot.”
AK Dixit, the dean at the Peoples hospital, is supervising the trial. Dixit explained to VICE World News that per the guidelines followed by his team, trial participants are given consent forms only when they ask for it.
Dr Anant Bhan, global health, bioethics and health policy researcher, told VICE World News that as per the Indian Council of Medical Research’s guidelines regarding vaccine trials, the consent forms should be provided to all participants at the time of seeking consent and completion of the documentation formalities. “This includes the participant information sheet and a copy of the signed informed consent document,” said Dr Bhan.
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