File photo | A health worker in Ghaziabad prepares a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine | PTI
A health worker prepares a dose of the Covid vaccine | Representational Image | PTI
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New Delhi: Three members of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) denied it was their recommendation that drove the government to extend the gap between the two doses of Covishield to 12-16 weeks, from 6-8 weeks, according to a news report published by Reuters Tuesday.

When it extended the dose gap on 13 May, the government had said the decision was based on the recommendation of the Covid-19 working group of the NTAGI, a panel set up in 2001 to advise the government on technical matters related to immunisation.

The government issued a statement Wednesday denying the Reuters report, but one of the three members quoted in the article stood by their assertion when reached for comment by ThePrint.

The extension of the Covishield dose gap to 12-16 weeks — although also implemented in some other countries — created a stir last month because it came amid reports of a vaccine shortage in India. The government denied the speculation at the time and said the decision was driven by scientific reason.

The three members of NTAGI quoted in the Reuters report are Dr Mathew Varghese, Dr M.D. Gupte and Dr J.P. Muliyil. While all three are members of the NTAGI’s standing technical sub-committee, Muliyil is also one of eight members of its Covid-19 working group.

According to the report, Varghese and Gupte said they only ever advised extending the gap to 8-12 weeks. Muliyil is quoted as saying that there were discussions within the NTAGI on increasing the interval, but the “specific number” of 12-16 weeks was “not quoted”.

In a subsequent press release, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said “no dissent was given by any of the three members — Dr Mathew Varghese, Dr M.D. Gupte and Dr J.P. Muliyil — as had been quoted in a news article by Reuters”. 

“Further, it is on record that Dr Mathew Varghese has denied talking to Reuters on the issue of his alleged assent,” it added.

However, Dr Gupte, former director of the state-run National Institute of Epidemiology, reiterated his statement when contacted over email.

“I suggest you should contact NTAGI office or the responsible persons for decision making in this regard,” he said in response to a questionnaire, but added, “I can only say, there is no specific recommendation to increase the dosing interval to 16 weeks.” 

Repeated calls and text messages to Dr Mathew Varghese and Dr J.P. Muliyil remained unanswered at the time of publishing this report.  

The chairman of the NTAGI Covid-19 working group, Dr N.K. Arora, did not respond to calls or texts either.

Also Read: How long can you wait to take 2nd Covishield dose? What experts say & the science behind it

‘Fundamental scientific reason’

In its announcement last month, the Union government said the NTAGI had recommended increasing the dose gap based on real-life evidence mainly from Britain. 

The decision, it was subsequently learned, was informed by three studies looking at real-world evidence from the UK. None of the three studies, however, actually looked at the results of a 16-week dose gap.

In its statement Wednesday, the health ministry said the “decision of increasing Covishield dose interval was based on the fundamental scientific reason regarding behaviour of adenovector vaccines”.

It added that “the record of minutes of meetings of Covid-19 working group and standing technical sub-committee (STSC) of NTAGI clearly show that recommended 12-16 weeks dosing interval for Covishileld was unanimous with no dissent from any member”.

The 22nd meeting of the Covid-19 working group of the NTAGI, it said, was held on 10 May 2021. The “recommendation of this Covid-19 working group was further taken up for discussion at the 31st meeting of the standing technical sub-committee (STSC) of NTAGI which was held on 13 May 2021 under the joint chairmanship of Secretary, Department of Biotechnology and Secretary, DHR (Department of Health Research) and DG, ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research)”. 

It then quoted the STSC as having recommended that “as per the Covid-19 working group, a dosing interval of minimum three months, between two doses of Covishield vaccine was recommended.”

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: UK cites variant of Indian origin as reason for decreasing gap between vaccine doses


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