Indian Scientists Didn’t Back Doubling Of Vaccine Dosing Gap: Report

The decision to change the gap from 6-8 weeks to 12-16 weeks on May 13 was announced by the health ministry.

According to a report by Reuters, three members of the advisory body told the agency that the Indian government doubled the gap between the two doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine without the agreement of the scientific group that it said recommended the increase.

The decision to change the gap from 6-8 weeks to 12-16 weeks on May 13 was announced by the health ministry, at a time when the country was suffering through a massive wave of infections and supplies of the shot were falling short of demand.

Health Ministry said the extended gap was recommended by the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI), based on real-life evidence mainly from Britain. Yet the scientists working on the group, classified by the government as three of the 14 “core members”, revealed that the body did not have enough data to make such a recommendation.

A former director of the state-run National Institute of Epidemiology, M.D. Gupte, said the NTAGI had backed increasing the dosing interval to 8-12 weeks – the gap advised by the World Health Organization. However, he added that the group had no data concerning the effects of a gap beyond 12 weeks.

“Eight to 12 weeks is something we all accepted, 12 to 16 weeks is something the government has come out with,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters.

“This may be alright, may not be. We have no information on that.”

Mathew Varghese, his NTAGI colleague, echoed Gupte’s views as he said the group’s recommendation was only for 8-12 weeks.

The health ministry, citing the head of NTAGI’s working group on COVID-19, said that the dosing decision was based on scientific evidence. “There was no dissenting voices among the NTAGI members,” the ministry said on Twitter.

On May 13, the ministry’s statement said that it had accepted the 12-16 weeks recommendation from NTAGI’s COVID working group, as had a group of mainly government officials tasked with vaccine administration, known as NEGVAC.

In a news conference on May 15, government health officials told the gap was not increased to address a vaccine shortage but was a “scientific decision”.

Member of the seven-strong COVID working group- J.P. Muliyil- said there had been discussions within the NTAGI on increasing the vaccine dosage interval but that the body had not recommended 12-16 weeks.

“That specific number was not quoted,” he said, without elaborating, Reuters reported.

The COVID working group head N.K. Arora refused to comment to Reuters on its recommendations but said all its decisions were taken collectively by the NTAGI at large.

A NEGVAC representative told Reuters that it “respects the decisions of the NTAGI and use them for our work”, declining to elaborate.

South Korea released a real-world data early last month which showed that one dose of the vaccines from AstraZeneca and Pfizer was 86.6% effective in preventing infections among people aged 60 and older.

This increased confidence within the advisory body that delaying a second shot would not be harmful, Muliyil said.

The Indian government has been criticised for being slow to respond to a new virus variant that led to a spike in infections in April and May. However, the government has denied the charge saying state-run laboratories had studied variants in real time and shared data with local authorities to allow them to take the necessary action.

Top Indian virologist Shahid Jameel recently quit a government panel on virus variants after criticising New Delhi over its response to the pandemic. Dr Jameel said the authorities should clarify their position on the reasons for the decision to double the gap between doses.

“In a situation where we have a variant of concern spreading, we should really be vaccinating people at scale and making sure that they are protected,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters.


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