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Covid-19: Peak Anxiety For US-Bound Indian Students On Vaccine Regulations

Representative image of a healthcare worker administering vaccine. Source: Evanto.

Abhishek Thanvi, 30, was all set to start his MBA this September at Columbia Business School till he woke up to find out that his vaccination might not be valid. His plans were already disrupted last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“It doesn’t feel good but I will get vaccinated again. I don’t really have a choice,” said Thanvi, who has received his first shot of the Covaxin vaccine and was due for his second jab in less than a week. 

Columbia University in New York City, like most universities in the United States, has declared that students are required to be immunized with a vaccine approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) to study on campus. 

Two of India’s three available vaccines – Covaxin and Sputnik V vaccine – still await WHO approval. In a recent interview, the spokesperson at Bharat Biotech, the manufacturer of Covaxin, stated that they expect their vaccine to receive WHO approval by September. College semesters usually start by August or September and many universities require vaccination proofs before that for students to be allowed on campuses.

At this point, Indian students planning to pursue their education in the US are left deciding whether to get both the doses of Covaxin or Sputnik V and risk having to get revaccinated or wait for Covishield doses. Even then, they may have to get revaccinated due to vaccine shortage and the current 84-day gap between two Covishield doses. 

“Obviously, there is a bit of concern since I don’t know what will happen if I mix vaccines. The hope is that since I have taken a non-RNA vaccine [Covaxin], I can take Pfizer or Moderna there which are RNA-based. But I am not an expert on this so I will just have to do what I am asked to do,” said Thanvi. 

Obviously, there is a bit of concern since I don’t know what will happen if I mix vaccines.

Revaccination in the US may take 4-5 weeks depending on the vaccine. For students who may not be able to access WHO-approved vaccines before they enter the United States, there is little clarity by most universities on how long the students would have to wait for the new vaccine, where they would have to quarantine and how it might impact their classes. There is no available data on the consequences of mixing two vaccines.

The New York Times spoke with Milloni Doshi who said that the process of going to Columbia University this year for her Master’s has all been “uncertain” and “anxiety-inducing.” She had already received two doses of Covaxin but the university told her that she may have to get revaccinated once she arrives on campus.

Nearly 400 colleges and universities in the United States have declared that students are required to be immunized against the coronavirus to attend classes. There remains a lot of ambiguity over the vaccine mandates with many universities stating that students who have been vaccinated with vaccines not approved by the WHO may need to be revaccinated. 

“There are no centralised policies on what universities take what vaccinations and this has really confused a lot of the students,” said Sudhanshu Kaushik, the 26-year-old founder of North American Association of Indian Students (NAAIS), a non-profit organization for Indian students in North America. 

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“The attempt to make sure that campuses open up for those who are vaccinated is a good move but what this [vaccination policy] also highlights is the hollowness and lack of understanding of these education institutions and governments and how true it is when people say vaccine disparity,” said Kaushik.

There are no centralised policies on what universities take what vaccinations and this has really confused a lot of the students.

India is already struggling from an acute vaccine shortage. Vaccination numbers have dropped by half in May from April. Students are struggling to find vaccination slots on time, particularly for the Covishield vaccine, the only WHO-approved vaccine available in India. 

Their problems are compounded by Indian government’s latest announcement that extends the gap between two doses of Covishield from 28 days to 84 days, leaving them with an increased likelihood of missing their second dose even if they are able to access Covishield. 

Some states like Maharashtra, Kerala, Telangana, Karnataka, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh are now providing priority registration for international students planning to go abroad this year. 

READ: “We Felt Helpless. We Were So Far.” Indians Abroad Are Watching Families Struggle With India’s COVID-19 Deluge.

Extended gap between two Covishield doses

Meet Dave, 23, who got one such slot for international students offered by the Maharashtra government and was vaccinated this week with Covishield is worried that even with the option of priority vaccine registration he may have to defer his Masters at Fordham University in New York City for one more year. Due to the newly introduced extended gap between two Covishield doses, Dave won’t get his second vaccine dose before the start of his classes and fears that he may have to wait till he is revaccinated to attend classes at Fordham if he decides to go to the US with just the first shot. 

Some of his classmates who are also planning to pursue education in the US have decided to forego vaccination altogether in India and get vaccinated once they reach America. 

Dave does not have this option. He is still waiting on his visa to be issued and could only get an appointment for August. Appointments to the US Consulate remain limited due to lockdown restrictions in cities like Mumbai due to the second wave that has shut down consular services or have them operate on limited staff.

Priyanka Chaturvedi, a Rajya Sabha MP and Shiv Sena Deputy Leader, has written to the Indian government’s Health Secretary to reduce the gap between two doses for students traveling abroad.

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For people who have received all or some of the recommended doses of a COVID-19 vaccine not listed for emergency use by WHO and not authorized by FDA, America’s  Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends waiting “at least 28 days after the last dose of the non-authorized vaccine before administering an FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccine.”

“I don’t want to mix vaccines”

Pratima, 24, got her first jab of Covishield on 27 May in Delhi but she worries that the second dose of the vaccine will not be available to her till mid-August due to the Indian government’s extended gap for Covishield. This may be too late for Yale University in Connecticut where she was planning to pursue her Masters in Global Affairs this year. Yale has reached out to its students requiring them to update the university on both their vaccine doses by August 1, 2021. 

“We are hanging by a thread when it comes to how much the delay would be. The visa is already getting delayed plus the revaccination would mean more delay even if you reach the university on time,” she said. Despite getting the WHO-approved Covishield, Pratima may also have to be revaccinated if she does not get her second dose.

“I don’t want to mix vaccines plus there is no scientific evidence that says that there is not going to be any side effects,” she said. 

I don’t want to mix vaccines plus there is no scientific evidence that says that there is not going to be any side effects.

Nearly 200,000 Indian students annually pursue education in the United States, second only to China. India and China account for nearly half of all the international students in the US. 

NAAIS’s Sudhanshu Kaushik is inundated by 10-15 messages and emails daily by students inquiring about college policies. His organization has been helping students understand vaccine regulations for their universities, pushing state and local governments in India to provide priority registration to international students and recommending alternate models for universities to follow and accommodate Indian students. 

“While there is large interest in recruiting as many Indian students, partly due to the tuition money and the economic advantage they bring, educational institutions and governments are not prepared to take care of these students,” said Kaushik. 

Bansari Kamdar is a Boston-based multimedia journalist and researcher. Her bylines include The Boston Globe, Conversation, AP, and HuffPost. 

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