NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India's Serum Institute will increase production of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccines by nearly 40 per cent in June, officials said on Monday (May 31), in the first step towards alleviating a shortage that has worsened the country's battle with coronavirus.
The world's second-most populous nation has struggled with a catastrophic outbreak of Covid-19 since last month which is only now starting to abate after killing tens of thousands of people.
Government officials and experts say the only way India can avoid a third wave of infections is by having most of its 1.3 billion population inoculated.
The Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest manufacturer of vaccines, will make 90 million doses of AstraZeneca in June, from about 65 million a month now, a company spokesman told Reuters.
Most of the shots administered in India are AstraZeneca, but local firm Bharat Biotech also plans to ramp up production of its Covaxin vaccine to 23 million in June from about 10 million in April, a government official said.
"There will be a gradual build-up of vaccines," said the official, who is involved in the approval of vaccines.
Only about 3 per cent of India's population is fully vaccinated and about 12 per cent have got the first shot and are waiting for the second. State governments, including in the capital Delhi, have reported an acute shortage of vaccines and some are inoculating only the elderly and front-line workers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced criticism for donating vaccines to neighbouring countries and further afield early this year as part of a diplomatic initiative.
"The very possibility of a second wave was not considered serious enough, and all aspects of the pandemic response bore the brunt, including vaccination," the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation said in a report on the vaccine roll-out on Monday.
India reported its lowest daily rise in new coronavirus infections since April 11 on Monday at 152,734 cases over the past 24 hours, while deaths rose by 3,128.
The South Asian nation's tally of infections now stands at 28 million, while the death toll has reached 329,100, Health Ministry data showed.
Most experts believe the coronavirus infections and deaths are considerably undercounted. The New York Times said the most conservative estimate of deaths was 600,000 and the worst-case scenario several times that number. The government has dismissed the assessments as absolutely false.
Dr Randeep Guleria, the head of the premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences based in New Delhi, said the pandemic was slowing in large parts of the country but it was not contained.
"We seem to be past the peak, but there is a certain level of concern about the south and north-eastern states," he said, stressing on the need for increased vaccinations.
Russia's Sputnik V vaccine will also be launched in the Indian market next month, its local partner Dr Reddy's Laboratories said.