India expands faltering vaccine drive as new cases soar over 400,000 in 24 hours

A notice about the shortage of Covid-19 vaccine is seen outside a vaccination centre in Mumbai, on April 30, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI (AFP, REUTERS) - India's devastating Covid-19 surge accelerated further on Saturday (May 1) with more than 400,000 new cases recorded in 24 hours, as vaccinations opened to all adults despite shortages of shots.

Official data showed that it is the first country to record over 400,000 cases within a day in the pandemic.

According to the health ministry, 401,993 new infections were registered - taking the total caseload to 19.1 million - after 10 consecutive days over 300,000.

There were 3,523 deaths, bringing the toll to 211,853.

Indian authorities lowered their guard in the early part of the year after infections fell below 10,000 per day, lifting restrictions on most activities. Some experts blame mass religious gatherings and political rallies for the severity of India's second wave, which caught the government unprepared.

Less then two months after the health minister said India was in the "end game" of the pandemic and New Delhi sent millions of vaccines abroad, the surge has sent worried Indians rushing for the jabs still in the country.

A crowd of around 100 people formed outside one Delhi hospital on Saturday as a hospital attendant came out regularly to call out numbers to people who had booked.

"There are so many people that are getting sick and if we get better, we ensure that other people... do not get infected, so we just wanted to be here as soon as possible," said one of those waiting, Mr Aadya Mehta, 25.

Following the recent surge, exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine by India's Serum Institute and of Bharat Biotech's home-grown Covaxin have now been frozen to prioritise India's needs.

Until now, only front-line workers like medical staff, people over 45 and those with existing illnesses have been given vaccines.

But even this more modest programme has stumbled, with some areas running out of shots and others throwing them away because of a lack of demand, in part because of the recent surge.

"The queues here are so colossal" said Mr Jayanti Vasant as he waited for hours at a busy vaccination centre in Mumbai this week. "The people are just fighting among themselves."

So far, around 150 million shots have been administered, equating to 11.5 per cent of the population of 1.3 billion people.

Just 25 million have had two shots.

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With the expansion of the rollout to all adults, around 600 million more people are now eligible to get vaccinated, but many states said they have insufficient stocks.

Millions of younger people terrified by the current situation and desperate to get inoculated registered on the government's digital platform. But very few of them have been given appointments and only half a dozen of India's 28 states began vaccinating people under 45, and in many cases only a token scale.

"Half my family is positive, so everybody wanted us to get vaccinated," data scientist Megha Srivastava, 35, told AFP outside the Max clinic, one of three private hospitals in the Indian capital vaccinating younger people.

"It won't completely protect us, but it will ensure that even if we get infected, we'll recover," she said.

The chief minister of the Delhi state on Friday had implored people not to queue at vaccination centres, promising more vaccines would arrive "tomorrow or the day after".

People gather outside an entrance gate of a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Mumbai, on April 28, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
A sweeper cleans the floor outside a vaccination centre which is closed amid reported shortage of Covid-19 vaccines at Shatabdi hospital in Mumbai, on April 30, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

India's West Bengal state was unable to start a vaccination drive for adults aged between 18 and 45 on Saturday due to shortage of shots and urged the federal government to provide more supplies, a senior state health official said, declining to be named as he was not authorised to speak with media.

India's eastern Odisha state said on Friday it had received a consignment of 150,000 shots, but would allow only a few people to get shots due to lockdown restrictions preventing movement.

In Ahmedabad, the main commercial city in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, hundreds of people were seen queuing.

"I took my first dose and I am appealing to all students to take the vaccine and be safe," said Raj Shah, a 27-year-old student in Ahmedabad.

Further confusion has been created by New Delhi's decision to ask states and private hospitals to order vaccine supplies on their own.

"We have contacted Serum Institute of India that has said they will be able to provide doses only after six months," Mr DS Rana, chair of the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi, told the Hindustan Times daily.

Dr C.K. Bakshi, a doctor at one government hospital, said there was "no issue with supply" and was vaccinating almost 300 people a day. But it did not have government permission to jab under 45s, she told AFP.

In Kolkata, Dr Rupak Barua, president of the Association of Hospitals of Eastern India (AHEI), told AFP that "confusion reigns".

"Private hospitals have had to return all their vaccines stock to the government," he said.

"The whole thing looks like a confused elephant to me right now," said Dr T Jacob John, a retired clinical virology professor at the Christian Medical College Vellore.

"Do you want to control the epidemic, save lives or both? If you want both you'll require a huge amount of vaccines. And we don't have it," Dr John told AFP.

He and other experts say that given the shortages, and its colossal population, India should have a much more targeted policy, concentrating vaccinations in hot spots.

Gujarat is among the few states to have said they would do so, with chief minister Vijay Rupani saying on Friday that vaccinations for over-18s would happen only in the 10 worst-hit districts.

"(We) feel that once this (additional) vaccination drive commences the way it was designed, it will stabilise gradually," health ministry official Lav Agarwal told reporters Friday.

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