The union health ministry has declined a request from the department of higher education, under the union ministry of education, to vaccinate the faculty, students, and staff members at Centrally Funded Technical Institutions, according to a letter dated April 5.
The department of higher education had written to the health ministry requesting a special provision to vaccinate faculty, staff members and students of Centrally Funded Technical Institutions, according to an office memorandum dated March 25.
The health ministry’s response, though, came after more than 900 students were vaccinated at Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, all below the age of 45. According to the ministry’s guidelines, vaccinations are now only open for frontline workers, health care workers, and those above the age of 45.
Centrally Funded Technical Institutions include the IITs, Indian Institutes of Management, National Institutes of Technology, Indian Institute of Science, and Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research among others, the memorandum stated.
These institutes are mostly residential in nature but were closed in March 2020 after a nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the virus, the request to the health ministry said. Depending on the situation in various states, some students in their final year and research scholars returned to the institute. Most of the courses at these institutes involve working in a laboratory, it said.
“In the view of increasing number of Covid cases once again, there is a need to provide immunity to the campus community which includes students, faculty and staff members,” the note stated. “Since hostels are community spaces, students live in shared space, use common toilets and common eating spaces, they could be a source for rapid spread of virus.”
Most of these institutes have a health centre or hospital on campus and some of them have Covid-19 wards that conducted RT-PCR tests, it said. “It is, therefore, requested to kindly accord priority to campus vaccination drive as a special case to all CFTIs to bring back students in campus for the completion of their programme.”
The memorandum was signed by Prashant Agarwal, director of IITs and was copied to the head of all the Centrally Funded Technical Institutes and bureau heads in the education department.
More than a week later, the immunisation division of the union health ministry responded to the memorandum and declined the request, stating that only those eligible as per the Centre’s guidelines would be able to avail the vaccine at government or privately-run institutions.
“The decisions on the category to be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccination are made by the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 which is based on scientific evidence, principles of equity, WHO guidelines as well as examples from other countries,” stated the letter that was signed by Dr Veena Dhawan, joint commissioner in the immunisation department.
In absence of any orders or response from the Union health ministry regarding vaccinating students and faculty, the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, went ahead and vaccinated over 900 students, despite being below 45 years.
The drive was conducted from March 30 till April 2, and at least 940 students and 250 faculty members were vaccinated with Covishield. Even those students living outside of the campus were vaccinated.
It is unclear how IIT Gandhinagar was able to bypass the Centre’s guidelines and vaccinate its students, a majority of whom are not even 25 years old.
India is currently in the midst of a massive surge in coronavirus infections. The second wave has coincided with the country’s vaccination drive. So far, more than eight crore doses have been administered across the country.
But at least seven states, including Odisha, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have complained of vaccine shortages, and have closed down multiple vaccination centres after running out of the shots. The union health minister, in turn, has accused state governments of making “deplorable attempts” to spread panic.