India began inoculating health workers on Saturday in probably the world’s largest vaccination campaign COVID-19 and joined the realms of richer countries where the effort is already well under way.
The country is home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and has one of the largest vaccination programs. But there is no game book for the enormous scope of the challenge.
Indian authorities hope to provide 300 million people, roughly the US population and several times more than the existing program aimed at 26 million infants. Beneficiaries include 30 million doctors, nurses and other frontline workers to be followed by 270 million others, who are either over 50 years old or have diseases that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
Health officials have not specified what percentage of the nearly 1.4 billion people will be targeted for the campaign. But experts say it will almost certainly be the largest unit in the world.
The large scale has its obstacles. For example, India plans to rely heavily on a digital platform to track the transmission and delivery of vaccines. But public health experts point out that the internet remains uneven in large parts of the country, and some remote villages are completely independent.
Local vaccine production “rapid”
India gave the nod to the emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and the British pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca, and another by the Indian company Bharat Biotech, on 4 January. Cargo planes flew 16.5 million shots to various Indian cities last week.
Health experts are concerned that the shortcut regulation taken to approve the Bharat Biotech vaccine without waiting for concrete data to show its effectiveness in preventing coronavirus disease may exacerbate the vaccine’s doubts. At least one state health minister has opposed the use.
The Indian Ministry of Health has been criticized for saying the vaccines are safe, but claims that health workers have no choice but to decide which vaccine they would receive.
According to Dr. SP Kalantri, head of a rural hospital in Maharashtra, India’s worst-hit state, such an approach was worrying because he said the approval from the authority was urgent and not supported by science.
“In a hurry to become populist, the government (decisions) make decisions that may not be in the best interests of the common man,” Kalantri said.
Given the rising global death toll from COVID-19 – which peaked at 2 million on Friday – the clock is ticking to vaccinate as many people as possible. But the campaign has been uneven.
In rich countries including the United States, Britain, Israel, Canada and Germany, millions of citizens have already received some protection with at least one dose of vaccine developed at revolutionary speed and quickly approved for use.
But elsewhere, immunization units have barely emerged from the ground. Many experts predict another year of loss and hardship in places such as Iran, India, Mexico and Brazil, which together account for about a quarter of the world’s deaths.
India is second to the United States with 10.5 million confirmed cases and is in third place in the number of deaths, behind the United States and Brazil, with almost 152,000.
According to the University of Oxford, over 35 million doses of various COVID-19 vaccines have been administered around the world.
While the majority of COVID-19 vaccine doses have already been taken up by rich countries, COVAX, a UN-funded project to deliver shots to developing parts of the world, has found itself lacking vaccine, money and logistical help.
As a result, the World Health Organization’s lead researchers warned that it is very unlikely that herd immunity – which would require at least 70% of the world to be vaccinated – is achieved this year. As the disaster has shown, it is not enough to sniff out the virus in a few places.
“Even if it happens in a few pockets, in a few countries, it will not protect people around the world,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said this week.