It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
A few days ago, on New Year’s day to be exact, we were greeted with the news that India had launched two vaccines to combat our close friend, Covid19, known generically as the Coronavirus. We have been living with CV19 for almost a year now and the virus seems almost like one of the family pets – canine, feline or avian. Part of the furniture. Just when we were beginning to think no power on earth is going to shift this stubborn pestilence out of our lives, along comes this dramatic announcement, to coincide with the dawn of 2021. The present dispensation in New Delhi have an uncanny sense of timing and what better time to unveil these two ‘magic bullets’ than to coincide with the new year heralding bright new beginnings. Happy days are here again, in the words of a long-forgotten soft-drink commercial.
At least, that was the way the script should have played out. Only, it didn’t. One of the two vaccines, Covishield, produced by the Serum Institute of India, in collaboration with Oxford-AstraZeneca of the United Kingdom had evidently ticked all the right boxes and everything was hunky-dory with this brand. More or less. The problem was with the other vaccine, Covaxin, produced indigenously by Bharat Biotech. Apparently, and this is what we were being told, this vaccine is still in the trial stage and it was premature to announce its state of readiness. Naturally, a flaming row erupted. Political parties opposed to the ruling dispensation, went into overdrive criticizing the Government for its alleged unseemly haste and brazenly capitalizing on the main chance. The Government in turn retaliated, firing on all cylinders, and the head of the beleaguered vaccine company went on national television, in righteous indignation, castigating all those who dared throw stones at the company that was doing yeoman’s service with no thought of pelf.
In short, what ought to have been a rah-rah moment of self-congratulation for the Government and the Indian medical profession turned out to be a sticky quagmire, and a PR nightmare. The Government’s medical arm was scrambling around offering complex explanations which only served to complicate matters further. I shan’t get into the nitty gritty of the issue, except to say that the matter could have been handled all round with a bit more caution and finesse, instead of rushing into areas where angels fear to tread and making needless announcements which left more questions unanswered. It is likely that everything will turn out well, and we may be on our way to getting the vaccines out to our eagerly waiting citizenry. After all, the world has been patting India on the back for its overall handling of the pandemic. And we are reputed to be the vaccine makers to the world for decades. So clearly the Government has got something right. It was at this point that I decided I should talk to my personal physician and get the lowdown on what he felt about the entire l’affaire vaccine. We connected with each other on Zoom and I proceeded to pepper him with inconvenient questions. I was making no apologies. I mean, family physician and all that.
‘Good morning Doc,’ I commenced cheerily. I always called him Doc. What is it with patients that when they face their doctors, invariably they become overly familiar and chatty. A nervous disposition, this hail-fellow-well-met act. I continued, ‘You must be very busy, but thanks for giving me this online appointment at short notice. You are looking well. You will be paid your consultation fees, of course.’ At this point he interrupted me.
‘What seems to be the trouble? I did not get an advance briefing from my Secretary on your complaint.’ He sounded a bit peeved, unless I was vastly mistaken.
‘Unless I am vastly mistaken, you sound a bit peeved Doc. Are you feeling all right?’ I injected just the right amount of caring concern in my voice. Since we were on Zoom, I affected a worried frown. I should be vastly surprised if a few wrinkles did not appear on my forehead, to say nothing of the knitted eyebrows.
‘No, no, nothing of that sort. Just that I have many patients waiting online, so I thought we should get straight to the heart of the matter. What’s more, you seem in fine fettle.’ The Doc sounded quite curt and formal.
‘Heart of the matter, eh? Tell you what, Doc. The old ticker seems to be in perfect working order. BP, pulse, oxygenation, all pretty much up to scratch. I have already jabbed myself with all the other normal flu vaccines. I’ve got arms like pin cushions, as Tony Hancock so memorably put it. Truth to tell, and as you have so unerringly divined, nothing physically wrong with me. Not at the moment anyway. Don’t wish to tempt the fates and speak too soon, eh. Ha ha. Since you keep tapping your pencil restlessly on your front teeth presaging incipient impatience, let me get straight to the point. These two vaccines that the Government has just announced. What is your take on the relative merits or demerits? Come on Doc, out with it. And don’t prevaricate.’ I was brooking no nonsense from him. Put him on the spot.
‘Is this what you fixed an appointment for? And who the hell is Tony Hancock? No wonder I didn’t get your file. Look, I’ve got patients who are genuinely suffering from all manner of ailments, including post-Covid recovery cases. And you want to chat with me on some academic issues to do with vaccines? For God’s sake, all you have to do is watch the news channels on television. They are full of it. The nation’s finest doctors, sporting fine suits and bow-ties and speaking in flawless Oxbridge accents, what more do you want? You can get all the dope from them, free of charge. Why waste your time and mine, not to speak of your money, talking to me about this? I am cutting this link now.’ He was really beside himself.
I rushed in before he disconnected. ‘Hey, hey, Doc. Hang, hang on. Don’t get so worked up. You are missing the point here. Very shortly, I hope, I will be lining up to get a shot of one of these two vaccines. Is it unreasonable to ask my personal physician of twenty-five years standing, which one I should opt for? Forewarned is forearmed and all that. Be reasonable, Doc. We are pals. Don’t take on so. As for Tony Hancock, just Google his name and Blood Donor. Brilliant British comedian of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Ah, I see your tea has arrived. Take a sip or two and simmer down. Careful you don’t spill any on your lovely, silk hand-woven tie. And answer my question.’
My Doc visibly calmed down. ‘Sorry, old chap. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. By the way, nice double entendre, forewarned is forearmed. To get back to your question. Look, about these vaccines. Your guess is as good as mine. How the blazes do I know which one is better, when I have not laid eyes on either one of them? The journos at the newspapers seem to know much more about all this. They keep printing detailed, comparative analyses of the drugs, with plenty of colourful graphics and so on. Bloody confusing, pardon my French.’
‘That’s why I came to you, Doc,’ I said. By now, I was feeling quite sorry for him. ‘Listen, my old medicine man with the stethoscope. Let me give you a tip or two, because I have been cramming up on many of these press reports. Pencil and paper ready? Good. Take notes.’
I then sat back and let fly from my layman’s knowledge of all that I have been reading in the Times of India and watching on Times Now, India Today, NDTV etc. My Doc was taking all this down furiously. In about fifteen minutes, I was through. ‘That’s it, Doc. I realize you don’t have the time to watch TV or read the papers, but these observations of mine will help you. Ask your Secretary to type this up and read it in the car on your way home. I take it you have a driver.’
‘Yes, I do have a driver, and I will do as instructed. Just a quick question before we end this. What if both the vaccine brands appear equally good on all parameters? What then?’ My Doc was now transformed, he looked quite excited though a bit confused and who can blame him?
‘I guess you’ll just have to toss for it,’ I replied. Adding for good measure, ‘Price equations may come into play, but you can worry about that later. One thing, though. When the vaccine is ready to roll out, I insist on getting the first jab from you, Doc.’
‘Jab we met, eh?’ He laughed raucously at this Bollywood-inspired, overworked, stale in- joke. He was clearly in the mood now. ‘Thanks pal. You’ve been a great help. Taken a load off my mind. Please treat this consultation as pro bono. Sorry I was a bit shirty earlier.’
‘No, no. Think nothing of it. Pro bono? Wouldn’t dream of it. Already paid. And I don’t want a credit note either. We’ll see next time.’ I signed off. As I did so, I saw my Doc looking thoughtfully at two empty vials (marked Covishield and Covaxin) on his table and muttering to himself, his pencil pointing this way and that,‘Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe.’ His voice trailed off as my computer went into sleep mode.