India Begins World’s Largest Vaccination Program

India on Saturday began one of the most ambitious and complex initiatives in its history: the nationwide rollout of coronavirus vaccines to 1.3 billion people, an undertaking that will stretch from the perilous reaches of the Himalayas to the dense jungles of the country’s southern tip.

The campaign is unfolding in a country that has reported more than 10.5 million coronavirus infections, the second-largest caseload after the United States, and 152,093 deaths, the world’s third-highest tally. India’s rollout, among the first in a major developing country, comes as millions of people in the United States, Britain, Israel, Canada and the European Union have received at least one dose.

The first dose was administered to a health worker at All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, after the prime minister, Narendra Modi, kickstarted the campaign with a national televised speech as 3,000 centers nationwide were set to inoculate a first round of health care workers. About 300,000 people were set to receive the vaccines on Saturday alone, followed by millions more health care and frontline workers by spring. “Everyone was asking as to when the vaccine will be available,” Mr. Modi said. “It is available now. I congratulate all the countrymen on this occasion.”

Covishield and another vaccine called Covaxin were authorized for emergency use in India this month. Neither Covaxin’s manufacturer, Bharat Biotech, nor the Indian Council of Medical Research, which contributed to the vaccine’s development, has published data proving that it works. In a Covaxin consent form at District Hospital Aundh, one of a handful of sites in Pune where the vaccine was being administered, the manufacturer noted that clinical efficacy was “yet to be established.”

At Kamala Nehru Hospital in Pune, a city of about 3.1 million southeast of Mumbai, 100 long-stemmed red roses were stacked neatly on a table beside a bottle of hand sanitizer. Each person registered to receive the Covishield vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University and manufactured by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, was to get a rose.

Dr. Rajashree Patil, one of the health workers who received the Covishield vaccine at Kamala Nehru Hospital, said she was both excited and nervous. After contracting the coronavirus while working in the government hospital’s emergency room in May, she spent 12 days in a Covid ward at another hospital, having lost her senses of smell and taste and experiencing extreme fatigue. “I’m a little bit worried. Actually we’re on a trial basis,” Dr. Patil said. “But I am happy we are getting it so we can one day be corona-free.”

Another doctor who received the Covishield vaccine at that hospital, Usha Devi Bharmal, said that she had wanted to get a shot to dispel people’s fears about coronavirus vaccines. “There are rumors on social media,” she said, adding that she hoped to help show that vaccines are a “positive thing.”

Mr. Modi has pledged to inoculate 300 million health care and frontline workers, including police officers and, in some cases, teachers, by July. But so far the Indian government has purchased only 11 million doses of Covishield and 5.5 million doses of Covaxin.

Indian television stations showed Dr. Randeep Guleria, the director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi and a prominent government adviser on Covid-19, receiving a jab on Saturday. It was unclear whether Mr. Modi was vaccinated.

India’s vaccination effort faces a number of obstacles, including a growing sense of complacency about the coronavirus. After reaching a peak of more than 90,000 new cases per day in mid-September, the country’s official infection rates have dropped sharply. Fatalities have fallen about 30 percent in the last 14 days, according to a New York Times database.

City streets are buzzing. Air and train travel have resumed. Social distancing and mask-wearing standards, already lax in many parts of India, have slipped further. That alarms experts, who say the real infection rate is probably much worse than official numbers suggest. 

 (Picture Courtesy: ITV Hub)

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