It’s great that the WHO isn’t just ‘not cutting corners’

Call me anti-national (and I’m sure many will) but I’m glad that the WHO isn’t just “not cutting corners” in the process of considering Bharat Biotech’s application for the UN body’s stamp of approval Covaxin but is also openly calling for more and more information from the company at periodic intervals.

This isn’t just a validation process in the larger scheme of things – which could imply something as banal as the WHO considering a really complicated application – but has also served to humiliate the Indian government’s instruments, from the clinical trial regulation apparatus to the prime minister’s office (let’s not forget that the PM is indeed a tool). The WHO’s process is resistant to “diplomatic” and “political” inputs, even as every meeting of its vaccine approval committee has concluded thus far with demands for more information from Bharat Biotech. This doesn’t prove that the Drug Controller General of India and the Central Drug Standards Control Organisation screwed up their vetting process to push Covaxin’s emergency-use license through earlier this year – but surely suggests it, and that’s just as well.

Everyone from Bharat Biotech’s upper management to Prime Minister Narendra Modi have failed to understand that bad data alone doesn’t cause vaccine hesitancy, that absent data has the same effect. The Indian government, specifically the Bharatiya Janata Party, dragged Covaxin to the centre of its vaccine triumphalism and afforded it the same privileges it has extended to other parts of government – trenchant opacity, approval sans data, vanishing accountability. As such, we were never talking about a product of the Indian medical research community as much as something resembling a corrupted political object, and that in turn should lead us to the conclusion that this vaccine deserved to be met with hesitancy, and the WHO’s repeated requests for more data indicates that it still deserves to be.

Thus far, the current government has seemed most responsive (albeit like a child, lashing out and hurting someone else) to the threat of humiliation. So, glad, even if I’m sure it will be short-lived. Once the WHO grants its approval (although there’s no guarantee), the government will certainly embark on a past-washing campaign, pressing its ministers to the task of weaving together an alternative history of why the approval process was unusually protracted. Is there any way we can preempt that?