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The science behind the Sputnik V vaccine & decoding India’s disastrous second wave

In episode 722 of #CutTheClutter, Shekhar Gupta explains how Russia's Sputnik V vaccine works and sheds some light on India’s Covid ‘disaster’.

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New Delhi: An expert committee Monday recommended Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine for emergency use in India. In episode 722 of ThePrint’s ‘Cut the Clutter’, Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta explains how this particular vaccine works and sheds some light on India’s Covid ‘disaster’.

Gupta pointed out that the data on coronavirus cases provided by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is getting worse by the day. The first wave was till September 2020, when cases had reached a little over a lakh per day. After that, we began to bend the curve.

“This was the virus setting up an ambush for us as it had done with every country in the world,” Gupta explained. And now, the data indicates that the number of people recovering from the virus is much smaller than the number of new or active cases.

However, the case fatality rate has come down. “Don’t think that as many people die per 100 people who get sick as they did in March, April, May or June last year. Medical science has discovered many ways of dealing with this,” he added.

However, younger people are also getting more infected this time. Gupta asserted that we gave into an ‘old Indian habit’ — “We declared victory over the pandemic too soon”. India might have done very well in the first wave and we declared victory. Then Indians got so busy in ‘self-congratulations’ and declaring normalcy that they didn’t realise the second wave was coming, he said.

“It happened very gradually. It happened in the days when we were celebrating Holi, when we were declaring elections,” Gupta said. The number of coronavirus cases has shot up steeply in 15 days.

Also read: Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine with over 91% efficacy recommended for emergency use in India

Buying into ‘Indian exception’

People also bought into the folklore of the ‘Indian exception’ that somehow Indians can’t be killed by the virus. “Nobody is virus proof,” he said.

Many said that India’s success against the first wave had much to do with the demographics since younger populations had fewer fatalities. We have fewer people over 60 years of age than developed countries which is why those countries had higher fatalities. But, we bought into this ‘Indian exception’ and became even more ‘lazy’, Gupta said.

Vaccination drive

On the question of vaccinations, Gupta said that nearly 50 per cent of the US population had taken at least one shot, nearly 60 per cent of the population in Britain had taken two shots. But in India, we may have nine crore people with two shots. “So, look at the size of your population — given that we should have reacted much faster and given that we are producing our vaccines ourselves, we should have been a lot more proactive placing those orders (for vaccines) — we left it too late,” he said.

Over-centralisation of pandemic response

Gupta also asserted that over-centralisation had much to do with India’s delay in its pandemic response. Some states are doing much worse than others, for instance Maharashtra.

“If the Maharashtra government wanted to do something proactively today, you can blame them, but they didn’t have the freedom to do anything because everything is so centralised in Delhi,” he argued. Everything is done by the central government powered by the National Disaster Management Act.

Gupta said everything in India is over-centralised, even the idea of how many vaccines will be ordered, what price will be fixed, which vaccines will be cleared, etc.

Gupta pointed out that India’s push to nationalise the vaccine could be called the ‘North Koreanisation’ of the Indian vaccine business as the Indian government had asserted that it would decide the price at which the vaccines will be sold, it would also decide who the vaccine could be sold to and that it won’t be exported.

Also read: Modi govt expert panel likely to meet this week to take a call on Sputnik V’s emergency use

Science behind Sputnik vaccine 

Gupta then focused on the composition of vaccines like Sputnik V.

There are three vaccines in the reckoning in India today which are not Indian: one is Oxford-AstraZeneca from the Serum Institute of India. The Sputnik V vaccine, produced by Russia, which now has been approved for emergency use, while Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is also under consideration.

“All three follow a similar route. This route is called adenovirus route,” Gupta said. The Sputnik vaccine is a combination of rAd26 and rAd5. rAd stands for recombinant adenovirus.

“What this does is, in this virus through genetic engineering, scientists weave the genetic information from a coronavirus spike protein into the adenovirus’’. This is then injected into our bodies, he explained. The adenovirus, basically, becomes a ‘Trojan horse’.

Scientists push a DNA which is ‘impregnated’ with the DNA of coronavirus, essentially asking the cell to produce spike proteins. Other vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA), which is a single thread or single strand DNA.

Gupta spoke of the science behind the vaccines: “This DNA from coronavirus is impregnated into Trojan horse, adenovirus which goes inside our bodies,” he said. Our body’s cells engulf this and it reaches our cells’ nucleus. The nucleus then reads up the information in it, asking the cell to make the spike protein. This information is picked up by our own messenger RNA from our nuclei, he said

These go out of nuclei into our cells and produce the spike protein, against which antibodies will be produced. These spike proteins are later recognised when the actual virus infects.

Watch the full episode here:

Also read: Study shows how tapeworm infestation drug Niclosamide can help treat Covid


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  1. Vaccination of India’s swelling population is a humongous task. The entire arithmetic is extremely adverse for India. If one has to vaccinate just 60% of the population (minimum required for herd immunity) 162 crore doses are required. Even if the current rate of vaccination at 3 million doses per day is maintained, it would require around 540 days to complete the task! Worse still, it is highly improbable to maintain the current rate of vaccination, which requires production capacity of 9 crore doses per month. However, our existing capacity does not exceed 7 crore doses per month. Add to that the factors such as high wastage, low efficacy rate for the two vaccines used in India, contracted export commitments by the main producer Serum Institute and occasional scarcity of raw materials further complicates the arithmetic. . The vexed issue is why the government could not anticipate the complex nature of stiff and demanding challenges and plan accordingly? It seems that the government is assuming and projecting that the problem is from demand side, inasmuch as there is a presumed widespread vaccination hesitancy. This is a total fallacy. The issue is instead from supply and distribution side. The government has failed to tie up the requisite capacity, delayed confirmed orders to main suppliers and inappropriately prolonged price negotiations. All these have created vaccine shortages and low vaccination percentage vis-a- vis our vast population. The approach can aptly be described as a ‘penny wise pound foolish’ mindset. If SII, Pune requires Rs.3000 crore for building additional capacity, why did not the government offer to invest that much? It is a far better investment than building new Parliament building. Add to that the pretension of India being the global factory of manufacturing vaccine. Such illusions are now busted by acute shortages of vaccines. Arranging Vaccine Utsavs is a totally futile exercise. The government should now wake up to the harsh ground reality and plan accordingly.

    The approval for Sputnik V vaccine is a ray of hope. In fact, this should have been thought of earlier. The delay in tying up is very much harmful and has caused low vaccination rate and consequent loss of life. The efficacy rate of the Russian vaccine offers lot of comfort. However, some doubts still persist. Why vaccination rate in Russia itself is extremely low, notwithstanding the easy availability of the in-house vaccine since the last year? According to the latest NY Times data, Israel is leading with highest vaccination rate of 115% ( maximum vaccination percentage can be 200% with two doses per person), USA- 56%’, UK -60%, UAE-94%. But Russia is just 9.8%, slightly higher than India’s 7.7%. The numbers speak for themselves.

  2. A very worthwhile development. It should give the authorities the self confidence not to press the panic button on hasty, porous lockdowns.

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