Last month, a former Indian cricketer Harbhajan Singh tweeted an efficacy comparison between UK’s Moderna vaccine, and the two vaccines being rolled out in India (developed by AstraZeneca-Oxford and Bharat Biotech). Moderna was placed at 94.5 percent efficacy, while AstraZeneca-Oxford at 90 percent, and Bharat Biotech’s vaccine is at 94 percent. “Indian recovery rate (without vaccine): 93.6 percent,” his tweet read. “Do we seriously need vaccine?”
Singh has 10.9 million followers, and his post went somewhat viral. Comments on his tweets dismissed it as just another piece of misinformation.
But Prateek Waghre, a tech and policy research analyst at The Takshashila Institution, observed, “I wouldn’t completely write this off.”
India is witnessing a movement of COVID-19 vaccine scepticism, triggered primarily by its own COVID-19 vaccine response. This movement, experts say, is very different from the anti-vaxxer sentiment we see in other parts of the world.
“So far, we have seen no major history of vaccine hesitancy in India,” Waghre told VICE World News. “The polio vaccination campaign is a good example of that. What’s happening during COVID-19 pandemic, however, is that narratives are changing much faster. The way things have been unfolding in India—around data availability, contracted development periods, etc—have led to a tricky situation: How do you ask questions without fuelling more vaccine hesitancy?”
A pre-COVID-19 survey published in the journal The Lancet last year showed that India ranks the highest among countries where people believed vaccines to be effective. During the pandemic, that trend changed. Last week, a survey by LocalCircles, an Indian social networking community, published a report in which 69 percent—of over 18,000 surveyed in 224 Indian districts—were hesitant to take the two approved COVID-19 vaccines. Yet another one by market research firm Ipsos found that 52 percent of the surveyed Indians were reluctant. “The chance of getting COVID-19 is so low that a vaccine is not necessary.”
Around the world, alongside the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, questions are being raised by anti-maskers, COVID denialists and anti-vaxxers. The U.K and Australia, among other countries, witnessed protests against those efforts.
India—the world’s second-biggest COVID-19 hotspot with 10.4 million cases among nearly 1.4 billion people—is facing a different set of challenges. The rise in COVID-19 cases coincides with that of vaccine misinformation and the emergence of small anti-masker and anti-vaxxer groups. In a Dec. 2020 report by analysis firm Graphika, India emerged as one of the significant regions with COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.
Cities like Mumbai even saw small protests. The anti-mask, anti-vaccine rhetoric mimics that of the movements in the U.S., the U.K, and Australia—ideas of bioweapon, chip implantation, population control, “plandemic”, pharma conspiracies and new world order.
Last week, VICE World News reported that vaccine trials by India’s first indigenous COVID-19 vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech was conducted, without informed consent, on the survivors of Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is one of the world’s largest industrial disasters. Whie the trials raised ethical concerns, one participant died of suspected poisoning after the trial.
Another set of questions are being raised about the “premature” approval of Bharat Biotech’s vaccine by the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI), which was hyped by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “game-changer”.
In yet another, Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, was accused by a trial participant of suffering from serious side effects. Serum Institute sued the man for $13.5 million for defamation and later demanded legal immunity for vaccine manufacturers in case of side-effects during the pandemic.
“For me, the suspicion started when the virus started spreading in India, and the fear that followed,” Namman Bhasin, a 27-year-old actor from the western Indian city of Mumbai, told VICE World News. “There wasn’t much information out there. I started questioning everything from the testing to death rates, the World Health Organization guidelines, and the government’s response.”
Bhasin is part of a “people’s movement” that goes by the name Awaken India Movement. He said that the opacity around vaccines made his scepticism worse. “We’re against the vaccine,” he said. “Especially against the coercion aspect of what’s happening. We don’t believe that vaccines are needed for COVID-19; there are other alternatives.”
Dr Sumaiya Shaikh, Sweden-based founding-editor of Indian fact-checking organisation AltNews Science, told VICE World New that it’s incorrect to call the ongoing movement in India an “anti-vaxxer” moment because there’s a lot more to it than just rumour-mongering. “There’s a general mistrust in the government, and rightly so,” she said. “It’s not that people don’t trust the vaccine, it’s the way the DCGI is cutting corners in the testing process of the indigenous vaccines, which has not happened in case of vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer despite the haste.”
Dr Soumitra Pathare, the director of Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy, told VICE World News that there is no anti-vaxxer sentiment in India. “Anti-vaxxers are fundamentally against all vaccination; vaccine hesitancy is not about being against vaccines (for example, I still believe in vaccination) but questioning the haste with which the Covid vaccines are being tested and approved,” he said.
Those like Bhasin point to several flaws in the ongoing vaccine drive, including its controversial approvals, that is causing alarm. In a Jan. 11 report by Associated Press, several doctors and scientists in India echoed the same concerns and miscommunications around the efficacy of the vaccines. “This is a process that Indian government officials are themselves sabotaging,” Dr Vineeta Bal, who studies immune systems at India’s National Institute of Immunology, told Associated Press.
Pathare said that he’s also been seeing clinicians and researcher colleagues questioning the approved vaccines’ safety and efficacy. The COVID-19 vaccine trials, he added, appear to be designed and conducted as “just another hurdle to get over so that we can start vaccinating people.”
“We are being told that we should trust the regulators and if they have approved the vaccine, we should blindly accept it,” he added. “Unfortunately, as a trained clinician and researcher, I just can't do that, especially when I feel that the regulator is in a hurry to approve a vaccine/drug.”
Waghre said that it’s difficult to quantify the vaccine hesitancy in India at the moment, but that the country might not be “quite there yet” in terms of anti-vaccine sentiments.
In 2019, India’s vaccination drive had suffered a major setback after dozens of schools in Mumbai refused health officials to vaccine because of a WhatsApp rumour. Even Facebook was rife with rumours about polio vaccination last year.
Social networking platforms are quick to crack down on COVID-19 and vaccine-related misinformation, which members of organisations like Awaken India call “censorship”. “We have moved to platforms like Telegram and Signal to mobilise and discuss,” said Bhasin.
Yet another anti-mask and anti-vaccine activist, Feroze Mithiborwala, told VICE World News that once the vaccine comes, he will not take it. “There is no legal accountability in case there are any side-effects,” he said.
Experts now worry about what will come next. “In the coming months, as the actual rollout happens, we’re likely to see more confusing or conflicting information emerge due to an information-deficit,” said Waghre. “Side-effects, if any, accompanied by limited transparency can also create distrust.”
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