India Urges States to Criminalize Criticism of Homemade Coronavirus Vaccine Candidates

TOPSHOT - Students and staff of a medical college take part in an awareness campaign for the Covid-19 coronavirus vaccination on the eve of Indias Republic Day in Bangalore on January 25, 2021. (Photo by Manjunath Kiran / AFP) (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images)
MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images

India’s central government on Monday asked state governments to criminalize what it portrayed as irresponsible criticism of two coronavirus vaccine candidates rapidly developed by Indian laboratories.

The Times of India (TOI) reported the government wants to “check the spread of rumors about the efficacy of Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] vaccines and take penal action against those who are found to be involved in the dissemination of wrong and ill-informed news.”

The vaccine candidates in question are called Covishield and Covaxin. Covishield is the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced locally in partnership with the Serum Institute of India. Covaxin was developed in India by Bharat Biotech Limited. The domestic product has triggered significant international speculation given the Indian government’s sudden approval to use them on a mass scale and the apparent lack of publicly available research on their development.

“I would like to strongly emphasize that the National Regulatory Agency in the country has found both the vaccines safe and immunogenic,” said Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla in a message to state governments.

“However, it has been reported that unfounded and misleading rumors are circulating on social and other media, creating doubt about the safety and efficacy of these vaccines,” Bhalla continued. “Such kind of rumor mongering, particularly by vested interests, can create unwarranted doubts among people at large, and there is, therefore, a need to check all such kinds of unfounded scare mongering relating to the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccines.”

Bhalla’s statement warned that “penal action” could be taken against offenders, under provisions of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 and Indian penal code.

The Serum Institute of India (SII) has been sensitive about criticism of its vaccine projects ever since a lawsuit it described as “malicious and misconceived” was filed in December by a man who became ill during a trial of Covishield, developed in partnership with AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. The patient said he spent over a week in intensive care due to his adverse reaction to the vaccine.

Both Covishield and Covaxin were approved for distribution by India’s Drug Controller General at the beginning of January. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the double approvals a “decisive turning point” in the fight against the coronavirus, congratulating “our hardworking scientists and innovators” for their achievement.

Covaxin is billed by Bharat Biotech as “India’s first indigenous Covid-19 vaccine.” Some scientists, and Indian opposition politicians, have criticized the “rushed” approval of the product, saying the decision was made without gathering sufficient data to confirm its effectiveness. Bharat Biotech doctors insist Covaxin is highly effective and has a very low instance of adverse reactions.

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