India rolls out nasal vaccine as it prepares for rise in Covid-19 cases

Indian vaccine firm Bharat Biotech has billed it as the “world’s first nasal drop vaccine”, which was cleared for emergency use in early September.

Debarshi Dasgupta

Debarshi Dasgupta

The Straits Times


The Indian Medical Association has urged the government to consider a fourth vaccine dose, especially for healthcare and front-line workers. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

December 29, 2022

NEW DELHI – India has rolled out a Covid-19 nasal vaccine – among the first few in the world – as it seeks to ramp up its flagging vaccination numbers and raise alertness following a surge in coronavirus cases in neighbouring China.

The nasal drop vaccine – iNCOVACC – has been available for booking on CoWIN, the country’s vaccination portal, since Dec 24, and is expected to be administered to the public from the last week of January.

It was developed by Bharat Biotech, an Indian vaccine firm, in collaboration with scientists from Washington University in St Louis.

Eight drops (0.5 ml in total) will be administered – four drops in each nostril.

It will be administered as a booster for those aged above 18, and there are hopes that the needleless vaccine could help widen immunisation coverage.

Bharat Biotech has billed it as the “world’s first nasal drop vaccine”, and it was cleared for emergency use in early September.

Around the same time, China authorised the use of the world’s first inhaled vaccine, Convidecia Air. The dose is delivered through a puff of air from a nebulizer that is then inhaled by mouth.

It has since also deployed another nasal vaccine, VectorFlu One, that is sprayed directly into nostrils. Iran and Russia have also launched Covid-19 nasal vaccines.

The appeal of nasal vaccines is that they generate a protective response in the upper airway, which is where the coronavirus attacks first. But there are questions about their efficacy when compared with injected vaccines.

A Bharat Biotech spokesman said the vaccine’s efficacy data has been submitted to the government and will be published in journals later.

India has meanwhile stepped up surveillance with random testing of 2 per cent of international passengers arriving from Saturday.

It has also mandated a Covid-19 negative test report for travellers from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand, besides asking states to sequence all positive cases reported and look out for new variants.

Bharat Biotech has billed its creation as the “world’s first nasal drop vaccine”. PHOTO: BHARAT BIOTECH

On Tuesday, drills were held at hospitals in various parts of the country to check if they can handle a potential surge in cases.

These precautionary moves come amid growing concerns over any adverse fallout from the virus spreading unchecked in China, including the possibility of a dangerous new variant emerging.

India went through two deadly waves of Covid-19 in 2020 and 2021. While it has been spared a fresh onslaught, fears of another whiplash from the pandemic have re-emerged in recent days. The Indian Medical Association, the country’s largest doctors’ body, urged the government on Monday to consider a fourth dose, especially for healthcare and front-line workers.

Experts have said there is no immediate cause for concern, but have nonetheless urged caution.

“We need to keep a watch and be situationally adaptive,” said Professor K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. “Right now, the situation does not warrant a high level of threat response, but we must be prepared to raise our level of response if the situation changes,” he told The Straits Times.

The country logged 188 new cases according to a daily government update as at Wednesday morning, with active cases increasing to 3,468. No deaths were reported in the preceding 24 hours.

The seven-day average of fresh Covid-19 cases was also low at 179 in the week ending Dec 26, a figure comparable to the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

“But we know that despite the best of surveillance at international airports, the virus will slip through. However, the rate of transmission may still be limited if we take precautions of people masking and avoiding large crowds,” added Prof Reddy.

Healthcare facilities also have to be strengthened, including availability of beds and ventilators, oxygen supply as well as human resources.

“I believe it should not be only hospitals, but primary healthcare centres should also be alerted in order to detect cases of fever because we need syndromic surveillance even for diagnosing clinically and subsequent testing,” said Prof Reddy.

Improving vaccination coverage is another key step. Virologist T. Jacob John recommended that booster immunisation coverage be increased, especially for the elderly, immunosuppressed and other vulnerable groups.

Around 95 per cent of the eligible population – aged 12 and above – have received at least one shot, while 88 per cent are fully vaccinated. But booster coverage is poor, with only around 28 per cent of the eligible population group covered.

Members of the public have been advised not to let their guard down, and this includes masking up.

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