Episode 108: The Dr Kang Interview

Hello and welcome to The Moving Curve. I’m Rukmini, a data journalist based in Chennai. Two nights a week on this mini-cast, I consider one question around the novel coronavirus epidemic in India. Tonight I’m considering this one — what’s going wrong with our vaccine development process?

As regular listeners might have noticed, I took a short break, and one of the things I’ve realised on my return is how squarely the conversation around covid has moved into the vaccine phase. Globally there are two other stories that matter too — one is around new variants, and the other around second and third waves, and I’m going to be talking about these issues on future episodes, but for multiple reasons, these are relatively less important stories for India. So I’m going to be stay on the vaccine story for the next few episodes — and there’s a lot of ground to cover.

In this episode, I wanted to sort of lay the groundwork, and whom better to speak to than Dr Gagandeep Kang. Dr Kang is a virologist and Professor in the Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at the Christian Medical College in Vellore. Her work focuses on diarrhoeal disease and vaccinology, particularly the testing and development of the rotavirus vaccine. In recent days, she has also come under some amount of right-wing attack for making the completely unobjectionable statement that the approval of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin vaccine has been rushed, and we need more data from the clinical trial before deploying it.

[Dr Kang’s interview that sparked the backlash is here.]

When I spoke to Dr Kang a couple of weeks ago, the immediate trigger was the news that a Chennai-based participant in the Serum Institute-Astra Zeneca-Oxford trial had suffered a serious health emergency and was now suing the company. That story is here.

My interest in the issue was not so much around whether the vaccine or the placebo caused the health emergency, but more around whether the issue had been handled through the proper regulatory channels, and the fact that we were hearing about it because of a news report in the Economic Times, and not because the company had disclosed it. So my first question to Dr Kang was about the opacity in communication that I feel has plagued not just the Covishield trial, but other trials too — Bharat Biotech’s to a far greater extent.

Being excited about the speed at which potentially effective and safe vaccines can now be developed is exciting — but making sure that we’re getting both the efficacy and safety right has got to be central to how we got about it. We’re going to be talking more about that in upcoming episodes.

I thank the legendary Dr Kang for joining me today. This episode was edited by Anand Krishnamoorthi. On the next episode — a new question.

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