A war of words ensued between Congress MP Manish Tewari and Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on Saturday after the former again raised questions on the efficacy of the Bharat Biotech’s coronavirus vaccine, Covaxin. The vaccine has been granted emergency use even though it has not completed its Phase 3 trials.

“Many eminent doctors have raised questions with regard to the efficacy and safety of Covaxin with the government saying that people will not be able to choose which vaccine they would like to take,” Tewari had told ANI earlier in the day. “This goes against the entire doctrine of informed consent.” The altercation between the Congress leader and the health minister came as India began its coronavirus vaccination drive.

The Congress leader also asked why the government functionaries were not getting immunised if the vaccine was safe and reliable and its efficacy was “beyond question.” Hours after Tewari’s allegations, Vardhan hit back with photos of government officials taking the vaccine.

The health minister, in a dig at the Congress and Tewari, quoted writer and cleric Charles Caleb Colton: “So blinded are we by our passions that we suffer more to be damned than to be saved”.

Vardhan said that Tewari and the Congress were only passionate about spreading distrust and rumours. “Open your eyes, sharing photos of eminent doctors & government functionaries getting inoculated,” he tweeted.

The verbal standoff then continued with Tewari again tweeting that the concerns he raised were real and that it was not fear-mongering. He also pointed to the death of 23 elderly patients in Norway who were administered the Pfizer vaccine. The Norway government has ordered an inquiry into it, according to IANS.

“Look what is happening in Norway,” Tewari tweeted. “It may be a different vaccine but do not hide behind vaccine nationalism. Expected better of you Sir.”

Tewari has repeatedly criticised the government’s restricted emergency use approval to Covaxin, which has been developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research.

On Wednesday, he had criticised the Centre after it indicated that states and beneficiaries would not have an option to choose between the two approved vaccines.

“Till yesterday NDA/BJP [National Democratic Alliance/Bharatiya Janata Party] claimed Covaxin has been cleared for emergency use,” Tewari tweeted. “Today by not allowing [the] recipient to pick [a] vaccine of his choice is NDA/BJP making Guinea pigs out of Indians? Is roll out THE REAL Phase-3 Trial of Covaxin?”

The Drugs Controller General of India had approved Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech’s vaccines for emergency use on January 3. The Serum Institute is the local maker of Covishield, the vaccine developed by Oxford University and pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca. Bharat Biotech has manufactured India’s first indigenous vaccine candidate, Covaxin, in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology.

Covaxin has faced reservations from various sections, including the Congress, for getting approval before publishing data for the third phase human trials. However, Indian Council of Medical Research chief Balram Bhargava had defended the decision to grant approval to the two vaccines.

Earlier in the day, Resident doctors of Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital demanded that they be given the Covishield vaccine instead of Covaxin as the latter had not completed its Phase 3 trials. Activist Saket Gokhale has also filed a writ petition against Drugs Controller General of India asking that the safety and efficacy data of the vaccine submitted to it be furnished urgently.

India registered 15,158 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, taking the overall count to 1,05,42,841. The country’s toll rose by 175 to 1,52,093. The active cases stood at 2,11,033, while the number of recoveries reached 1,01,79,715.