In a significant ruling, the Kerala High Court (HC) has held that not allowing citizens to have the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine early while allowing certain category people, such as those going abroad, is discriminatory, more so when people are even willing to pay for the second jab. Currently, the gap between doses in India is of 8-12 weeks for the Covishield vaccine, but the Kerala HC has now ordered the Centre to allow paying customers to opt for a reduced interval between doses.
Allowing the petition filed by Kitex Garments Ltd and another company for early second dose vaccination of their workers, Justice PB Suresh Kumar ordered the Union government to make changes to vaccine-booking portal CoWIN to allow citizens willing to pay for the second dose to choose between an early vaccination to be safe or a late vaccination for better efficacy.
Kitex Garments had sought a directive to the Kerala government to administer the second dose of Covishield to its workers before completing the 84-day gap beween the two doses.
Advocate Blaze K Jose, who represented Kitex Garments, contended that preventing early administration of second-dose vaccines to the petitioner’s employees after having bought the vaccine at the cost of Rs1.5 crore amounts to discrimination.
In its petition, Kitex Garments submitted that over 5,000 of its workers have already received the first vaccine dose, and it is arranging for the second dose for nearly Rs93 lakh. Still, the garment company was unable to administer the second dose because of the 84-days restriction.
Advocate Jose argued that the Union government could impose the mandatory 84-day gap between the doses if people were availing the vaccine through them.
However, if people are paying it from their pocket, they should be allowed to take the second dose after four weeks, which is the minimum prescribed gap between the Covishield doses, advocate Jose further told the court.
Both the Union and state governments had admitted before the court that early second dose vaccination is allowed for some categories, such as people going abroad for jobs or studies, government officials requiring travel abroad, and those participating in the Olympics.
The HC held that citizens who pay for the Covishield vaccine have the right to choose whether to be vaccinated four weeks after the first dose, as was initially prescribed by the government or after 84 days as prescribed by the government later citing better efficacy.
In the judgement, the HC noted vaccination is voluntary and the dosage gap prescribed by the Union government can only be considered advisory. In such circumstances, the court said there is no reason for the Union government to oppose it as its own decision to distribute vaccines through private hospitals is to enable people to get vaccinated early.
The court has also clarified that it has not given a ruling on whether the citizens have a choice for early vaccination or late vaccination while availing vaccines for free from the government.
Last week, the Union government submitted to the Kerala HC that 84 days between the first and second vaccination doses of Serum Institute’s vaccine ‘Covishield’ provides the best protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
It also told the HC that India’s vaccination drive is built on scientific and epidemiological evidence and the World Health Organization (WHO)’s guidelines and global best practices. It said the dose interval underwent revisions based on available and emerging scientific evidence mentioned above with the overall guidance of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration (NEGVAC’s) for Covid-19.
“This is based on the technical opinion that the duration of 84 days between first and second doses of Covishield is providing the best protection against Covid-19, ” the Union government’s affidavit read and claimed that the grounds advanced by Kitex Garments in its petition were false, frivolous and deserved to be dismissed.
However, the Union government admitted that it had allowed administering the second dose before the prescribed period of 12-16 weeks in some instances. These included people seeking to travel abroad for education and employment or were a part of the Indian contingent to the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
“As per the evidence available, the immunity provided by two doses of the Covishield vaccine with intervals less than 12-16 weeks would be better than partial vaccination,” the Union government’s response to HC said.
The gap between two doses of the Covid-19 vaccines has been a question of crucial importance amid the pandemic. Health authorities and governments have explored optimum spacing between doses as much to ensure that it provides the best immunity as for enabling the greatest possible number of people to get at least one jab of a vaccine.
When India decided to extend the gap between doses for Covishield in May this year, reports said that health authorities had based the decision on efficacy data from the UK. But after UK moved to reduce the gap, Indian officials said there were no plans to follow suit immediately on the decision.
But amid the need for certain groups of individuals for travelling abroad, the Union government decided to allow a reduction in the dose gap, saying it had to be a minimum of 28 days and that the second dose should be taken before 84 days. The reduction in the gap was only for the Covishield vaccine and not for Covaxin, the indigenous vaccine for which the second dose is spaced at 4-6 weeks after the first dose.