Members of the Burmese military received doses of a Covid-19 vaccine imported from India without being informed that it had not yet been approved, according to military sources.
The military’s covert vaccination program, which used the Covaxin vaccine produced by Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech, began in January and continued for three months, the sources told Myanmar Now.
Those who received the vaccine were not told it was still in phase three of clinical trials at the time, according to several people who participated in the program.
“They said they were going to vaccinate us, then check our immunity two weeks after the jab to see if it had increased. So you could say it was a test, ”said an officer who was in the first group of test subjects.
The officer, who was stationed at a military hospital in Mingaladon Municipality in Yangon, told Myanmar Now that 15 soldiers, including himself, had blood drawn three times after each of the two shots they fired. received.
He said the program was then expanded to include more military personnel after reviewing the results of the first 15 subjects.
“I thought they were taking blood from everyone. But later we found out it was just us. We even joked that we were being used like lab rats, ”he said.
“It’s infuriating, but there’s nothing you can do about it because it’s the army.”
Another person who was to participate in the program as a test subject said it was carried out under the orders of senior officers.
“They wanted a study population to serve as a register of people who received the injections, maybe 100,000 people or so,” said a doctor at another military hospital in Yangon. “To be honest, I think it’s sad that we were used as human guinea pigs in this way.”
The doctor, who asked not to be identified, said two teams were involved in collecting data from those who had received the vaccine.
“There was one group of people who followed our body’s reaction to the vaccine – how many people developed a fever, how many became nauseous – and another who tested how much the amount of antibodies in our blood increased afterwards. vaccination, ”he said. noted.
The wife of a naval officer told Myanmar Now that her husband, who received the first injection in mid-February and the second a month later, finally learned that the vaccine he received was Covaxin, not the approved Covishield vaccine, also produced in India, which was used in the national immunization program launched by Myanmar’s civilian government days before it was ousted from power on February 1.
She added that although her husband was able to obtain this information because of his rank, it was unlikely that ordinary soldiers included in the army’s vaccination program would be aware of this fact.
Bharat Biotech began Phase 3 trials for Covaxin last November, but by early January it still hadn’t made much progress due to a lack of volunteers ready to try the vaccine.
The company, which has denied conducting clinical trials outside India, told Myanmar Now by email that it sent 55 vials of the vaccine to Myanmar in January, but added that it was ‘a common practice when dealing with potential buyers.
However, on February 11, another 200,000 doses of Covaxin were Shipped in Myanmar as part of the Indian government’s Vaccine Maitri diplomatic program, under which 1.5 million doses of Covishield had already been dispatched on January 22.
On January 27, Indian online media Mint reported that Bharat Biotech was seeking approval from the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to test Covaxin in both countries.
An official from the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), a partner of Bharat Biotech in the production of the vaccine, is quoted in the article as saying that such trials are part of the normal procedure followed by countries seeking to procure vaccines. The article also noted, however, that Bharat Biotech declined to comment on the subject of foreign testing.
Unlike Covishield, which is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India under license from the multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company AstraZeneca, Covaxin was developed in India. By the end of June, it had received emergency use authorization in 16 countries, according to local media. reports.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which received a request for inclusion of Covaxin on its emergency use list in early July, has not yet completed its review of the data submitted.
Denial of the trial
Most government officials, including those in the former civilian government, deny knowledge of the military’s vaccine testing program.
Dr Win Myat Aye, who headed the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement under the ousted government of the National League for Democracy, and Dr Zaw Wai Soe, who played a key role in efforts to this government’s response to Covid-19, and who is now Minister of Health in the shadow government of national unity, both said they were not aware of any Covaxin-related programs that may have existed prior to the Rebellion.
In late January, shortly before the military takeover, Health Ministry spokesman Dr Khin Khin Gyi told local outlet Eleven News that the government did not intend to test Covaxin in Myanmar.
In an interview with Myanmar Now on July 15, Dr Htay Htay Tin, deputy director of the National Health Laboratory and another leading figure in efforts to contain Covid-19, also said that no trials of Covaxin had been conducted. in Myanmar.
Less than a week later, Dr Khin Zaw, director of the Food and Drug Administration, said civilians were injected with Covaxin in April.
“We have already administered Covaxin vaccines in Myanmar. We have given all the vaccines given to civilians, ”he told Myanmar Now on July 21, adding that the vaccines had been approved by the FDA for use, not for testing.
He added that the public health department may have conducted trials using data collected from those who received the vaccine, but claimed it had already been proven to be safe and effective at the time. where it was administered.
Dr Than Naing Soe, one of the directors of the public health department, said the department has not conducted trials on Covaxin or approved research on the vaccine, although there have been discussions on this subject.
“We refused to do the tests here. We don’t want our people to suffer just because another country wants to test their vaccine, ”said Dr Than Naing Soe, who is also a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health under the current regime.
“Approve whatever is available”
While the junta has not admitted having carried out clinical trials on soldiers, senior regime officials have made no secret of their desire to use vaccines not approved by the WHO to fight Covid-19.
In February, coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing mentioned Covaxin as one of the vaccines the regime planned to purchase, along with others from China and Russia.
In an interview with China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency in April, the Deputy Minister of Information of the Military Council, General Zaw Min Tun, also counted Covaxin among the vaccines for use in Myanmar.
As early as June, some companies claimed to have already received FDA clearance to import Covaxin. On June 23, a local pharmaceutical company called SML announced on Facebook that it was accepting pre-orders for the vaccine.
Dr Khin Zaw, director of the FDA, said SML was given the green light because it submitted its application with Bharat Biotech’s approval.
“If we were to deny anything that is still pending WHO approval, we wouldn’t be able to approve most drugs here. WHO-approved vaccines are almost impossible to get here at the moment, so we decided to approve whatever was available, ”he said.
Since the start of the third wave of the pandemic at the end of June, the junta’s health authorities have administered the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines to people over 65 years of age. These vaccines offer 51 to 79% protection against Covid-19.
The Chinese government donated 2.5 million doses of Sinopharm vaccine to Myanmar and the regime purchased 2 million doses of Sinovac.
Those familiar with the Covaxin trial program say the Indian vaccine has been shown to be largely ineffective in preventing infection.
The naval officer’s wife said almost everyone in her husband’s unit contracted the disease despite being vaccinated with Covaxin.
The Mingaladon Military Hospital officer said two-thirds of those who participated in the Covaxin trials were infected soon after the start of the third wave. Although they were vaccinated, many developed symptoms of Covid-19, he said.
“I first had a fever, then I lost my sense of smell. After that I got nauseous and stopped eating, ”he said, describing the first common signs of infection.
“I am not even going to test myself for Covid-19. I have treated Covid-19 patients in my ward, so I’m pretty sure I already have it, ”he added.