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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Public figures who contributed to Vaccine Hesitancy, yet escape all accountability – Part 1

Blindly opposing any government just for the sake of opposition has its own pitfalls. Often, it can cause deep damage to Bharat and its citizens. This is exactly what a whole plethora of so-called journalists’ like Shekhar Gupta and ‘intellectuals’ like Prashant Bhushan have been busy with for the past year. Their half-truths, lies and conjecture have weakened our fight against Covid-19, in particular by contributing to ‘vaccine hesitancy‘, a medical term which refers to delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccination despite availability of vaccination services.

Where better to start than the made-in-Bharat Covaxin vaccine manufactured by Hyderabad-based vaccine producer Bharat Biotech in association with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which was opposed to by the liberal-secular media from day one.

It has now become evidentially clear that they were all wrong but that has not changed their opinion one bit and none of them had the grace to go back and accept that they unfairly maligned the indigenously made vaccine. Another deeper malaise lies in the fact that those responsible for such propaganda have gone unpunished which is exactly why they peddle the same stories unabashedly, even today. Even after ruling for seven years, the  BJP government has not been able to reign in the fake news media networks.

Their agenda from the very beginning was pretty clear – sow doubt about anything and everything the Government does, and if the situation worsens, to put the blame on the government. Funding from foreign manufacturers and their crony capitalist friends has also been alleged.

From the outset, Shekhar Gupta’s The Print has been skeptical about almost everything related to Covaxin, such as casting doubt on the reliability of an ICMR study which said Covaxin produced a robust immune response during animal trials. (Note: use of ‘scare quotes‘ is a time-tested media strategy to convey scepticism or cast doubt on something) 

The Print

The worst was yet to come and most of it happened this year. They went all out to create confusion. Through a series of articles, they tried to sabotage Bharat’s plans to escape the menace our country was facing from the Chinese-origin virus. 

The basis of most of the arguments was the emergency approval granted to Covaxin despite Phase III trials not being complete. This at a time when the mutated and more rapidly spreading UK version of the virus had started to make itself known in Bharat, and overlooking the fact that other countries like US, UK were also granting fast-track and emergency approvals for vaccines in their own countries, based on expert assessment of whatever clinical trial data was available.

The Print

‘Politics of chest-thumping nationalism’, ‘public rollout of an untested product’, ‘ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether India’s homegrown shots make the final cut’, ‘Nationalism can only muddy the waters with vacuous slogans and irrational goals’, ‘Cutting corners will damage trust’ are some of the phrases used in the article dated 4 January by Andy Mukherjee, and repeated in various forms by the media-NGO lobby regarding Covaxin.

But when Matt Hancock, UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, says: “This is a moment to celebrate British innovation….it is a tribute to the incredible UK scientists at Oxford University and AstraZeneca whose breakthrough will help to save lives around the world. I want to thank every single person who has been part of this British success story.”, these same commentators do not find any ‘chest-thumping nationalism’ in such comments, only a country and society celebrating its heroes and their success.

Not surprisingly, the same Andy Mukherjee had penned an articleWhy I’m Losing Hope in India‘ dated 28 Nov, 2020 for Bloomberg, a long dirge on all that ails India under Modi as per the author.

Another article appeared a day later, to cast more doubts in the minds of citizens by implying that the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) made a ‘sudden U-turn’ while giving the conditional nod for the vaccine.

A byte was added from an one Malini Aisola, co-convenor of an NGO called the All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN), that said that the panel’s reversal was ‘perplexing’. AIDAN is a collective which contains member NGOs like Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT) which in turn receives FCRA funding from the likes of  Association for India’s Development (AID)-USA, Ford Foundation, McArthur Foundation, Oxfam etc. No wonder, AIDAN had also condemned the FIR lodged against Indra Jaising’s NGO ‘Lawyers Collective’ for FCRA violations.

On 5 January, another article appeared form ‘public intellectual’ and The Print columnist Nitin Pai.

A Swarajya article on super-spreaders of vaccine hesitancy correctly assesses this article by Nitin Pai –

He also fed into the anti-vaccine paranoia stating that ‘other than to the highly credulous, it is pretty obvious that the Drugs Controller General of India’s ‘approval’ for Bharat Biotech’s indigenous vaccine candidate, Covaxin, was announced for extra-scientific reasons.’….

If the heading screamed these words that would prejudice a reader, deep inside the article were buried the line: ‘The vaccine is perhaps quite safe and effective.’

On 8 January, another article appeared which said that the whole regulatory process ‘lacks clarity’ on the part of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), which ‘raises questions’ on the safety and efficacy of both Covaxin and Covishield.

The article argued that CDSCO allowed labs to manufacture and stock the vaccine ‘without obtaining prior permission’ from the DCGI, the same authorities that the outlet was blaming just three days back! Didn’t it occur to The Print that the CDSCO reports to the DCGI or that the CDSCO is in fact the nodal agency that discharges functions assigned to it by the DCGI which might include stocking the new vaccines?

By mid-January, the actual rollout had begun and healthcare workers were being vaccinated on a priority basis. This is what The Print had to report on 16 January.

Note the suggestive nature of the headline which makes it appear like hesitancy over Covaxin is widespread among the medical community, and doctors are taking the vaccine more out of desperation than conviction. But the subtext itself reveals that the majority of doctors are perfectly fine with Covaxin. The allegedly skeptical AIIMS doctors mentioned in the article remained anonymous. Out of a total of 10 doctors and senior medical authorities named/quoted in the article, 8 were fine with the vaccine, with many stating they were convinced about its safety, while only 2 reported some apprehensions although they too agreed on the necessity of vaccination. However, the headline and tone of the article would make one think that hesitancy over Covaxin is widespread among the medical community!

Yet, such is the chutzpah of propagandists like The Print editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta that after allowing his website to be used to peddle all sorts of articles riding roughshod over Covaxin and even raising doubts over Covishield, on 14 April this is what he tweeted

“Who’s to be held accountable for a global vaccine superpower being reduced to a desperate importer”! This is how the Lutyens’ lobby insults our intelligence. Their sheer arrogance is due to the the knowledge that no one will hold them accountable for the lies, innuendo and half-truths they spout everyday. On the contrary, they are lauded as opinion-makers, are rewarded with crores of investment by big businessmen like Ratan Tata, Uday Kotak and Nandan Nilekani, and win Padma Bhushans.

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