Schools Are Reopening Even As The Rollout Of Vaccines For Kids Is Not In Sight!

Schools have reopened in several states of India, namely Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa and most of the north-western states, last month or earlier; in the capital of the nation—Delhi, Kerala and in Tamil Nadu schools are being started from today; and most other states including West Bengal have preferred to reopen after the Diwali festival at different dates. The decisions of the reopening have been taken at various times in various states in the last few months, but the state governments concerned were hesitant due to mostly the objections of parents, the lack of vaccines for kids and the fluctuating numbers of daily infections. However, with the capital Delhi schools operating from today, we are witnessing scenes of kids going back to schools after nearly 19 months. Of course, with various conditions and restrictions attached. Many of  the parents are still not convinced which gets accentuated by the fact vaccination for kids is yet to start despite ZyCov-D, the first ever DNA-based needle-free three-dose vaccine for children of 12-18 years of age, being approved by the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) in the month of August 2021. Besides, the DCGI is yet to give its nod after its Subject Expert Committee (SEC) had recommended Covaxin for kids over the age of 2 years early in October.


The delay in the rollout could be due to various reasons: the obvious negotiations for pricing of the doses; since the priority group to be vaccinated first is children with comorbidities the process is likely to be complex and time-consuming in identifying them and the issue of medical certificates required; and of course, the production of the vaccines, that is the supply side, as the demand is bound to be very high considering the very large chunk of the population in India being up to the age of 18 years. Besides, as per news reports, vaccinating young people is a sensitive issue and the DCGI has reportedly been still studying the data of clinical trials on children by Bharat Biotech for Covaxin for kids. Therefore, we cannot expect a rollout till the end of the year or even getting extended to 2022.  This factor combined with the anticipated effects of the festival season is creating a sense of anxiety in parents and elders in families.


The importance of reopening the schools is paramount in a country like India where the vast majority of students in the rural areas do not have smartphones or laptops or internet connectivity to keep attending online classes, and as a result a huge chunk of rural students has virtually stopped studies for more than one and half years which may lead to a crisis in near future. This is one of the main points raised by a group of epidemiologists and health experts on the need for returning to in-person learning. One other important point of the expert group is that during the disastrous second wave nearly half of the young community got infected with no significant casualties which mean that healthy young students need not fear much from the virus. However, the concern remains as to them becoming carriers of the virus to their families with elders. Then, there is the emergence of new and newer variants of COVID-19 that can have vaccine-escape characteristics.  


One related concern is that even among the adult population hardly 25% has got fully vaccinated so far thus leaving a huge majority still susceptible to infections. Here comes the question of ‘herd immunity’ as serological studies conducted after the second wave had revealed very high percentages of the population having developed immunity against the virus in various states, and interestingly, in most of such states the daily infections have been insignificant in last few months while states with less immunity levels are showing fluctuating, sometime rising and sometime falling, daily infection figures. This ‘herd immunity’, as we said on previous occasions also, could be because of the large number of unaccounted or unofficial infections and the similarly controversial deaths possibly in hundreds of thousands during the nightmarish COVID-19 Second Wave in India.  As experts say herd immunity through the natural way can only be achieved at a huge cost in terms of infections and lives.


For the last few days daily infections in India have been well under control and the post-Diwali impact is going to be crucial. At the moment Kerala is still leading with high numbers, very high numbers of daily deaths in last 3/4 days, possibly due to backlog counting. Numbers are rising in West Bengal after the Durga Puja festival; Tamil Nadu is maintaining 1000+ daily infections with significant daily fatalities and Mizoram also is yet to experience significant relief.


For students over 18 years of age the positive news is that Australia becomes the latest country to recognize Covaxin for travel purpose which means fully vaccinated Indians with Covaxin can also travel to Australia without restrictions. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization’s nod for emergency use authorization to Covaxin is still pending due to which students and other travelers vaccinated with Covaxin are finding it difficult to travel to countries like the US, UK and other European nations. The vaccination target set by the Government of India should ideally be achieved by December this year and the rollout of vaccines for kids must be started as soon as possible.