To take the jab or not?

With the COVID-19 vaccine roll out set to begin in March, ambiguity and doubts hang in the air.

Though the Prime Minister has assured that he will take the first jab himself, the fact that the India-produced Covishield or Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine is mired in controversy ever since nine Indian health workers died one to five days after receiving the vaccine due to cardiovascular problems and “brain stroke,” has not boosted people’s confidence.

Further, the Indian government does not seem to be so fortnight in providing information on its vaccines though it started its inoculation campaign from January 16 and hopes to vaccinate 300mn people by August.

The Bhutanese are now in a dilemma over whether to take the vaccine or not. Let us look at some facts here: since Covishield is EUA, we cannot say for sure how dependable it is though clinical trials show that it is 62-90% effective. What we are worried about right now is the clinical outcome-the side effects to be precise. We have already been warned of possible mild side effects like pain and inflammation at the point of injection, fever and fatigue. We have also been warned of serious side effects like anaphylaxis for those who have a history of allergy. Those with co-morbidities and who are on long-term medication have been dissuaded from taking the vaccine apart from children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers who are not eligible.

The good thing is: if we fall within the eligible population and take the vaccine we will remain asymptomatic and not pass on the virus to others. The bad thing is: we are not too sure about the effects the vaccine can cause because all individuals are not the same.

The government must keep in mind that being transparent is key if they are to prevent public panic. Even if the information is sensitive, they must talk, because it concerns the safety of more than 533,000 of the country’s population. Talking about which information is lacking on the strains collected from the latest outbreak in Thimphu and Paro. Experts had been suspecting that the community transmission might have been caused by a mutated strain that was extremely transmissible compared to the original virus.

UK has developed the Novavax vaccine which has proved effective in treating the new strain that is more transmissible by 70%. It had proved 83% effective in a trial conducted in the country, and by 60% in South Africa on people not affected by HIV (the new strain originated from South Africa).

It has been said that Novavax is the first vaccine to prove effective against the new strain. But the plant that produces the vaccine will be up and running only my March-April. In that case, has Bhutan missed the bus? That is why, information on issues as critical as this needs to be made transparent. Of course, if we are still dealing with the original Coronavirus, we still have hope.

As for taking the vaccine, when the head of the government himself is taking it first, it does display a degree of confidence in the vaccine but then when we say we are waiting till March, maybe the authorities are just buying time to see the how the vaccine does elsewhere.

Notwithstanding that the vaccine has raised speculation, it would suffice to say that maybe we should not be playing the blame-game here.

Maybe it would be wise if the government allows those who want to take the vaccine to go ahead and those who want to avoid it to do so. Admittedly, there should be evidence to prove that individuals have been vaccinated so that they have access to certain places, gatherings, services and so on. The rest who refuse to be vaccinated have to forsake certain privileges simply because they might endanger the community.

But nothing good comes for free: take it and risk the side-effects (maybe even safety) or leave it and be left out. The choice would be entirely ours.