Why There Will Never Be A Perfect Vaccine And Why We Should Trust What Our Scientists Developed

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Jan 18, 2021 01:20 PM +05:30 IST
Why There Will Never Be A Perfect Vaccine And Why We Should Trust What Our Scientists Developed Covaxin, India’s first indigenous vaccine against coronavirus.
  • It is better to be cognizant of our generation’s own vaccine experiences, quietly take the new vaccine, and be grateful for at least this, rather than to fret over irrational fears and irresponsibly induce needless public alarm.

Along with Uttarayan, and a northward ascendancy of the Sun, the government of India has finally commenced the world’s largest inoculation programme against the Wuhan virus. As is only to be expected with any positive developments, this vaccine rollout too, has been accompanied by the usual clamour from the usual suspects. Fear and alarm has been raised over the efficacy of various vaccines, and their possible side effects.

These worries range from the absurd, on whether we will glow at night, to the paranoid, that vigour might diminish in certain departments, and the undeniable, that taking a vaccine shot might result in a violent bodily reaction. The apprehensions sought to be raised are more on the side effects, rather than on whether the formulations work or not.

This has resulted in needless vaccine hesitancy, and equally needless fears, at a time when a year of hard work by our scientists offers us a way out of the virus’s vortex. That is both irresponsible and unfortunate, since the truth, as repeatedly expressed by the authorities, is that side effects would only manifest in a minor fraction of the vaccinated population, if at all, and even then, would be largely negligible.

As someone who grew up in East Africa during the 1970s, this writer is actually surprised that an educated person would expect novel vaccines to not have side effects. In fact, most vaccines do cause fever or body ache, so why should we expect a vaccine against the Wuhan virus to be any different? It is only a rare few like the polio vaccines, which do a sterling job unnoticed (although even here, the probability of vaccine-induced polio remains at about three per million, in spite of which, millions of children get inoculated every year without fuss).

So from that standpoint, if modern medicine has been able to develop a vaccine against the Wuhan menace, which has few side effects, and works, then that is a reason for applause. It’s a Virginia Slims moment – from the 1970s ad, ‘You’ve come a long way’ – because things definitely weren’t that way when this writer was growing up.

As it is, freshly-decolonising Africa was the badlands in those days, ridden with crime, corruption and backwardness; and tropical East Africa was further burdened by a host of sicknesses, which flourished in the verdant wetness of those parts. The last line of a schoolyard ditty was, ‘If Idi Amin don’t get you, the Tsetse will’ – a morbid reference to trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, which is spread by the Tsetse Fly.

Consequently, children and adults had to be repeatedly inoculated against a long list of diseases with frightfully-high mortality rates. The administration of these prophylactics was a particularly painful process, with often equally strong and painful side effects.

Malaria was the easiest – one pill of a disgustingly bitter quinine-derivative compound taken every Sunday. Some doctors of the time were concerned that prolonged use would affect certain organs, but everyone took it, because the long-term risks were far less than a nasty bout of malaria, which then tended to recur every few years well into adulthood.

The diphtheria booster dose was an icicle into your veins, because it had to be stored in a refrigerator right up to the moment of use (like Covaxin or Covishied). It hurt like the blazes, and invariably resulted in a swelling. Some children developed a mild fever, for which they got two glorious days off from school. Then there was the ‘yellow fever’ vaccine, which too, often caused reactions.

It was relatively easier when these medications were given in school, because they used more modern compounds with diminished side effects, the syringes were the new, plastic, disposable variety, and the head nurse for many years, was an angel who knew how to administer a shot without letting her wards feel even a prick of pain. That, though, was only one privileged school, out of a city of a million and a region of many underprivileged millions more.

But simply the worst was the six-monthly Cholera vaccine. It was a holy ritual, and a mandatory routine. Families would troop to the designated hospital like clockwork, with their UN vaccination cards in hand (those were the United Nations’ heydays, when the World Health Organization worked for a living). Few skipped a shot, since cholera was one of the biggest killers around, at a time when, and in a land where, access to penicillin was a rare privilege. Still, those were truly traumatic episodes.

First was the refrigerated vial, which was larger than the usual dose. This meant having to watch an attendant lift a large, scary, metallic syringe out of a bubbling autoclave, and attach a mile-long needle to it. Then there was the unsmiling matron who could very well have screen-tested for a Hitchcock film. And finally, a giant icicle in the veins which forced a fricative whimper, and not a few tears of real pain.

But that was nothing compared to the side effects of the Cholera shot – a raging fever for a day or two, a terribly painful swelling on the upper arm which didn’t subside for days, and a persistent ache in the shoulder joint which turned even the slightest of movements into agony.

And yet, the point is that there was never any fuss. Nobody protested on the streets, or spread slander campaigns. No one demanded a perfect vaccine. Everyone took their shots, and quietly suffered the side effects, because they were grateful to science and god for at least this much prophylaxis. It was a calculated risk, which ensured to some extent, that they and their families would be somewhat safe.

This is what certain sections of our mainstream media need to understand – that there will never be a perfect vaccine, that there could be minor side effects in some cases, and more serious reactions in a rare few. This is a fact of life. Either way, they need to stop asking for the moon.

What we have managed to develop in such a short time has been found to be safe for the main, and thus cleared for public use.

It’s all we have at the moment, to make the Wuhan virus go away; maybe not completely, and not without peripheral fallout, but just enough, so that lives can be saved, and livelihoods regained.

It is, therefore, better to be cognizant of our generation’s own vaccine experiences, quietly take the new vaccine, and be grateful for at least this, rather than to fret over irrational fears and irresponsibly induce needless public alarm.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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