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A pilot and aviation safety expert talks about volunteering for phase 3 trial of Chinese vaccine Sinopharm

Amit Singh volunteered for the trials in Bahrain, which like other Middle East countries, has approved the use of Sinopharm

January 20, 2021 / 05:57 PM IST
Representative image

Representative image

Safety, and the importance of effective communication, comes naturally for Amit Singh, a veteran pilot. Also an aviation safety expert, Singh is an avid blogger, who investigates aircraft incidents and accidents, including the Kozhikode air crash in August last year.

That is why when an opportunity came to volunteer for the phase three trial of a COVID-19 vaccine, Singh made the most of it. Based in Bahrain, Singh had in September last year taken part in the third phase trial of Sinopharm, the vaccine from China.

"It was volunteering for a good cause, and is like part of the other things I do around safety. For something that has impacted the globe, this was my way of contributing," says Singh, who is also a Fellow of London's Royal Aeronautical Society.

Bahrain, like other countries in the Middle East,  had approved the use of the Chinese vaccine after third phase trial on over 40,000 participants. Singh was one of them.

"It is also good for overall safety, to have antibodies, rather than have nothing. And even though it was a trial, I didn't expect things to go bizarre," says Singh, who runs NGO Safety Matters in India.  He was duly informed about the process and the possible side-effects, and was strictly monitored.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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"I was told I may feel fatigued. But I didn't feel a thing," says Singh. Pilots are not allowed to fly for 48 hours after they get a jab. The process is repeated after the second dose. "There were many swabs taken and blood tests conducted. All parameters were tracked," he says.

Amit singh

Like in any trial, Singh wasn't told if he was given the vaccine or the placebo. But the fact that he didn't get the rudimentary call at the end of the trial  - which is done if one hasn't developed antibodies after a shot - Singh understood he has got the vaccine. Once the vaccination drive began, his family too got the doses.

Was the family worried about the adverse reaction incidents related to vaccines across the world, including in India?

"Just like a crash in a million flights doesn't stop anyone from flying, one adverse reaction shouldn't hold anyone back from taking COVID-19 vaccines, says Singh.

In India, however, the vaccination drive has seen many health professionals backing out, with many citing reservations on Covaxin, the vaccine that was approved without completing third phase trial. Some of the volunteers who were part of an ongoing trial alleged they weren't duly informed about the vaccine.

"If the communication is correct and people are well-informed, then they will take better choices," says Singh. Just like clear communication is crucial for a pilot to take sound decisions while in the cockpit and having the controls of an aircraft.

Lack of proper communication may have been one of the reasons that led to the crash of the Air India Express flight in Kozhikode in August 2020, killing 21 people.

"It is also a cultural thing. In India, we don't read the fine print before signing a contract. But in countries such as Singapore and Bahrain, they make sure that one reads and understands everything before signing," says Amit.
Prince Mathews Thomas heads the corporate bureau of Moneycontrol. He has been covering the business world for 16 years, having worked in The Hindu Business Line, Forbes India, Dow Jones Newswires, The Economic Times, Business Standard and The Week. A Chevening scholar, Prince has also authored The Consolidators, a book on second generation entrepreneurs.
first published: Jan 20, 2021 05:57 pm

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