Can you choose your COVID vaccine? Experts weigh in

While FAQs of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW) are silent on the issue of citizens' choice when it comes to being inoculated, ahead of a mass vaccine rollout, ethicists are raising the question of choosing between products. Medical experts and legal brains say that citizens should have the right to choose, especially since data of the trial run of vaccines has not been made public.

Advocate Tishampati Sen, who practices at the Supreme Court and tribunals including consumer courts, said, "From a legal point of view there are some grey areas. Two vaccines have been approved by the DCGI (Drugs Controller General of India) — Oxford-Astra Zeneca's 'Covishield' and Bharat Biotech's indigenous 'Covaxin' — based on information they have. The deployment of the vaccines is up to the government alone right now."

"Even otherwise, the common man has no ability/criteria to choose a certain vaccine. Presently, the only choice they have is to get vaccinated or not," Sen said.

"God forbid but in case of side effects and/or failure to prevent the disease, a consumer would, presumably, have the ability to bring a claim against the manufacturer and perhaps other stakeholders. Sufficient information is not available, yet there is a strong encouragement to get vaccinated," said Sen.

Dr Subhash Hira, Professor of Global Health, University of Washington-Seattle, USA, said, "While India won't have enough doses to cover all priority groups comprising over 40 crore people before June-September, ethicists are questioning whether people will be able to choose between products that have variable contents, pedigrees, and efficacy levels."

"Initially, there won't be enough vaccines for 40 crore Indians. Later, I assume a policy decision at the ministry of health will prioritise vaccines based on parameters such as efficacy, durability of immunity, adverse effects, made-in-India pedigree, and cost," Dr Hira said.

However, ethics should be balanced, Dr Hira said, "The State has the duty to protect citizens under the National Disaster Management Plan. While citizens have the right to 'consent' or 'exercise choice of vaccine', 'refusal' to take the vaccine is not a choice. Public health can trump the rights of individuals."

Dr Ketan Vagholkar, professor of surgery, DY Patil Medical College, said, "The results of vaccine trials in the West and India and mass vaccination should be made public. Medical experts should analyse these results and issue safety guidelines. Those getting vaccinated should first undergo a preliminary check for underlying allergic disorders by primary health care physicians. Citizens should be able to choose the vaccine rather than health authorities deciding for them."

Advocate Mithil Sampat, who practises consumer law, said, "Under the Consumer Protection Act, people have the right to variety and choice. Although people shouldn't be picky during a pandemic, they have the right to not be used as guinea pigs."

According to Solicitor Stuti Galiya, "The MOHFW clarified that getting vaccinated is voluntary. This question of choosing from options becomes important considering that not all vaccines may be right for everyone. It is here that seeking informed consent from potential vaccine candidates becomes crucial.

"Healthcare professionals must provide people with options, educate them, and address fears. To achieve this, they must have proper training, too."

"It is important to have adequate safeguards and detailed guidelines from the MOHFW to prevent misuse, improve vaccine confidence and overall trust in medical science," Galiya concluded.