Covid vaccine trials: Dalits, Adivasis and Backwards yet again the guinea pigs

In Madhya Pradesh, ‘volunteers’ were paid Rs 750 each for taking a trial dose of Covid-19 vaccine. One such ‘volunteer’, Deepak Marawi, died ten days after receiving the trial dose. The government, the vaccine manufacturer and the hospital that conducted the trials appear to be washing their hands of his death. Tabish Hussain reports

The poor, vulnerable, deprived sections and Adivasis have always been paying the price for being what they are. The dominant classes, capitalists and even the governments are ever ready to exploit them. The policies of the government vis-à-vis these sections are rarely transparent and almost never implemented sincerely. Take what happened in Bhopal recently. The poor and the deprived were drafted in for clinical trials for Covid-19 vaccine without their express consent. The way rules and regulations were flouted in this case shows the establishment’s contempt for the rights and interests of these communities.

“One day a vehicle from the hospital, fitted with a loudspeaker, came to our mohalla. It was announced that the Corona vaccine would be given free of cost at People’s Medical College Hospital (PMCH) and also that the recipients would be paid Rs 750. Two days later, the vehicle again came to our mohalla, and along with some other women of the locality, I, too, went to the hospital to get vaccinated. After getting the injection, I had a headache and a stomachache. I also got a fever,” says Yashodabai Jatav.    

Monetary angle 

Yashodabai lives in the Pratap Nagar area of Bhopal and makes a living by stitching clothes. She decided to get the vaccine for the money that was promised. Munni Jatav, Hiralal, Jitendra and many others from Shiv Nagar were also driven by the same motive. Munni Jatav also got a fever after vaccination. “I had fever and swelling in my feet. I went to a local doctor who gave me some medicines,” she said.  

People’s Medical College Hospital, Bhopal where the Covaxin trials were conducted

Many residents of the city’s Odiya Nagar, Shankar Nagar, Shiv Nagar and Subhash Nagar were drafted in for the clinical trial of Covaxin on the pretext of inoculating them. 

Rashida Bi, winner of the International Goldman Environmental Prize and president of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, says, “Of the 1,700 who took part in the trial, 700 were Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims. After being vaccinated, many of them are facing serious issues.” 

Deepak Marawi’s case

Deepak Marawi, 47, an Adivasi was also one of them. He lived in a one-room tenement in Subedar Colony in Tila Jamalpura area of the city along with his wife Vaijanti and three children. Deepak was a labourer and his wife used to work as domestic help. Vaijanti is a victim of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. She is an asthma patient and her youngest son has a cardiac ailment. The first dose of Covaxin was given to Deepak at PMCH on 12 December 2020. On 19 December, he felt restless and tizzy. He also vomited once. Unwilling to part with the limited money he had, he decided against visiting a doctor. On 21 December, he died when he was alone in his house. He was cremated on 22 December after a postmortem examination. 

Deepak’s son Akash says that after receiving the trial dose, the hospital telephoned them many times to know how he was doing. But no one came to their home and neither was his father asked to visit the hospital. On 21 December, they received a call saying that Deepak should be sent to the hospital for the second dose. Someone from the family informed the caller that Deepak was no more. Akash says the vaccine and negligence of the doctors killed his father. 

Deepak’s wife, his landlord Radheshyam and their neighbours say that Deepak was in perfect health. Deepak’s postmortem report attributes death to a cardiac arrest. His viscera has been sent for examination to a laboratory. 

Covaxin is an indigenous Covid-19 vaccine, developed jointly by Bharat Biotech International Limited, and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). It is one of the two vaccines approved for “restricted emergency” use by the Drugs Controller General of India. The other is Covishield, the local name for the vaccine developed in the UK jointly by Oxford University and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Covishield is being manufactured by Serum Institute of India, a Pune-based private company.   

What Biotech said 

Bharat Biotech said that its product Covaxin has been tried on 26,000 persons in India and Deepak’s was the only case of death on being administered the vaccine. The company has claimed that Deepak’s death had nothing to do with the vaccine. It also referred to the postmortem report issued by Bhopal’s Gandhi Medical College. The company also said that the deceased had received only one shot of the vaccine and that could not have caused his death. Meanwhile, the third phase of the trials of the vaccine in Bhopal has been completed.  

Covaxin trials are said to be riddled with irregularities

The company may have shrugged off the claims about the death of Deepak being related to its vaccine but there is no denying the fact that PMCH flouted all norms of clinical trials and its behaviour was nothing short of negligent.

The hospital misled the “volunteers” into believing that they were being inoculated against Covid-19. According to the rules prescribed by the Drugs Controller General of India and ICMR, volunteers should be clearly told that they are taking part in a trial and their voluntary, express and informed consent should be obtained in writing. But People’s Medical College seems to have laid down its own rules. The volunteers were told that they would be getting vaccine shots for free and were asked to sign or put their thumb impression on documents. There is an express ban on paying money to the volunteers taking part in a clinical trial. But the hospital paid them Rs 750 per dose. The volunteers should be kept under medical supervision. However, beyond telephoning them once or twice to know how they were doing, the hospital did not do anything to assess their condition after administering the vaccine. It is also mandatory to get the volunteers insured and pay them a compensation of Rs 8 lakh in case of death or permanent disability. But the hospital and the company both are trying to avoid paying a penny to the next of kin of Deepak. 

What the hospital management said

According to a report published on IndiaSpend, A.K. Dixit, dean of PMCH, claimed that the process of obtaining the consent of the volunteers orally was filmed. However, the volunteers denied that being the case and said that their consent was never sought. 

Several organizations working among the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy wrote to the Prime Minister and the Union Health Minister on 10 January demanding an immediate termination of the trials. They demanded penal action against the institutions and the officials who jeopardized the health of the volunteers and ignored their rights, besides compensation to the volunteers for the harm caused to them. It was also demanded that the family of Deepak Marawi, who died after receiving the vaccine, be paid Rs 50 lakh announced for ‘Corona Warriors’.  

Underlining the irregularities in the entire process, Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said: “No record of the problems being faced by the people who received the vaccine is being kept. When persons facing physical problems went to the hospital seeking treatment, they were sent back. The health status of the volunteers is not being monitored and treatment is not being provided to them.” 

Rashida Bi, of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, says, “This is not the first time the right to life of the poor, the oppressed and the deprived has been compromised. No one has been punished for the death of 13 Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims in clinical trials of drugs produced by foreign pharma companies at the Bhopal Memorial Hospital.”

Past irregularities

Even before Covid-19 vaccine trial, Madhya Pradesh has been the favourite destination of transnational pharmaceutical companies for conducting illegal clinical trials of their drugs. The Adivasi and the deprived sections, who fall prey to these companies’ schemes, have been risking their lives. In November 2011, the Madhya Pradesh Economic Offences Bureau had submitted a report on unethical clinical trials of drugs in the state to the Vidhan Sabha. The report said 32 people who took part in these trials that between 2006 and 2010 had died while 49 had become permanently disabled. In this period, trials of 76 different drugs were conducted on 3,307 patients by the neurology department of MY Hospital, Indore, and the paediatrics department of the Chacha Nehru Children’s Hospital and Research Centre of MGM Medical College, Indore. Six doctors were placed under suspension after the scandal came to light and were charged with accepting Rs 6 crore each from the pharma giants. Most of the people on whom the new drugs were tested were either Adivasis or members of deprived communities and were lured with “free treatment”.

In 2012, the BBC, in its report, had exposed how doctors of private and government hospitals in the state conduct illegal and unethical drug trials on unsuspecting patients on behalf of foreign pharma firms. Most of the guinea pigs were Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs. The BBC had claimed that more than 2,000 people had lost their lives in these trials over a period of seven years.  

Unanswered questions 

What happened in Bhopal recently shows that eight years after the sensational BBC disclosure, little has changed in the state. Madhuri, an activist associated with Madhya Pradesh Dalit Adivasi Jagriti Sangh, says that the government is using the Dalits and Adivasis as guinea pigs for testing the Covid-19 vaccine, the efficacy and safety of which is still unproven. Cases of serious side-effects of other Covid-19 vaccines and death of volunteers have been reported from many European countries. A large number of Dalits and Adivasis in the state suffer from TB, malaria, malnutrition and other medical issues. But Dalits and Adivasis form a very small percentage of the fatalities due to Covid-19. Then, why are they used for the trials?  

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing)


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