India begins world’s biggest coronavirus vaccination programmes today

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Over the coming months, India aims to inoculate around 300 million people.

India begins one of the world’s biggest coronavirus vaccination programmes on Saturday, hoping to end a pandemic that has killed 150,000 people in the country and torpedoed the economy.

The country is home to the world’s largest vaccine makers and has one of the biggest immunization programs. But there is no playbook for the enormity of the challenge.

The first dose of a vaccine was administered to a health worker at All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital New Delhi, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted the campaign with a nationally televised speech. Priority groups across the vast country, from the Himalayan mountains to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, began receiving it shortly after.

“We are launching the world’s biggest vaccination drive and it shows the world our capability,” Modi said in his address. He implored citizens to keep their guard up and not to believe any “rumors about the safety of the vaccines.”

Health officials haven’t specified what percentage of the nearly 1.4 billion people will be targeted by the campaign. But experts say it will almost certainly be the largest such drive globally.

AFP looks at the numbers involved in the vast and complex undertaking compounded by weak infrastructure, online hoaxes and security and safety worries:

Over the coming months, India aims to inoculate around a quarter of the population, or 300 million people. They include healthcare workers, people aged over 50 and those at high risk.

On the first day, around 300,000 people will be vaccinated at 3,000 centres. About 150,000 staff in 700 districts have been trained to administer jabs and keep records. Around 100 people will be vaccinated in each of the 3,006 centers across the country on the first day, the Health Ministry said this week.

The government aims to manage the entire process digitally with its own app, CoWIN, which will link every vaccine dose to its recipient.

India has four “mega depots” to take delivery of the vaccines and transport them to state distribution hubs in temperature-controlled vans, keeping the doses colder than 8 degrees Celsius.

A total of 29,000 cold-chain points, 240 walk-in coolers, 70 walk-in freezers, 45,000 ice-lined refrigerators, 41,000 deep freezers and 300 solar fridges are at the ready.

These will be needed once the Indian summer arrives in the coming months.

In one recent practice run in a rural area, a consignment of dummy vaccines was photographed being delivered by bicycle.

To stop any of the vials being stolen and being sold on India’s large drugs black market, authorities are taking no chances, with armed police guarding every truck.

CCTVs are in place at warehouses with entry subject to fingerprint authentication. Automated data loggers will monitor storage temperature and transfer messages every three seconds to a central unit, according to the Times of India.

“Security measures are essential to not only address the issue of logistics and safety but also build confidence in people that the supply chain is intact, unbroken and safe to the point of delivery,” Preeti Kumar, a public health specialist, told AFP.

India gave nod for emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and UK-based drugmaker AstraZeneca, and another by Indian company Bharat Biotech, on January 4. Cargo planes flew 16.5 million shots to different Indian cities last week.

India has ordered an initial 11 million doses of Covishield, AstraZeneca’s vaccine made by India’s Serum Institute, at 200 rupees ($2.74) each, and 5.5 million doses of Covaxin at 206 rupees each.

The government’s “emergency approval” of Covaxin, made by India’s Bharat Biotech, has some doctors worried because Phase 3 human trials are yet to be completed.

Authorities say that people will be given two doses of one of the vaccines — and not one of each — 28 days apart. Effectiveness begins 14 days after the second shot, they say.

Serum plans later to sell the jab privately to Indian individuals and firms for 1,000 rupees ($14), raising fears that the rich will get inoculated sooner.

A recent survey of 18,000 people across India found that 69 percent were in no rush to get a Covid-19 shot, in part due to public scepticism fuelled by online disinformation.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan took to social media on Thursday to dispel some of the doubts.

“There is no scientific evidence to suggest that #COVIDVaccine could cause infertility in either men or women. Kindly do not pay heed to such rumours or information from unverified sources,” he said in one tweet.

Other developing countries are banking on India for getting vaccines. Brazil is reportedly sending a plane to India this weekend in the hope of collecting two million doses from Serum.

India plans to offer 20 million doses to its neighbours, with the first batches shipped over the next two weeks, Bloomberg News reported. Latin America, Africa and ex-Soviet republics will be next.

Over 35 million doses of various Covid-19 vaccines have been administered around the world, according to the University of Oxford.

While the majority of the Covid-19 vaccine doses have already been snapped up by wealthy countries, COVAX, a UN-backed project to supply shots to developing parts of the world, has found itself short of vaccine, money and logistical help.

As a result, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist warned it is highly unlikely that herd immunity — which would require at least 70 per cent of the globe to be vaccinated — will be achieved this year. As the disaster has demonstrated, it is not enough to snuff out the virus in a few places.

“Even if it happens in a couple of pockets, in a few countries, it’s not going to protect people across the world,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said this week.