Indians turn to private websites, companies to secure Covid-19 vaccination slots

Only around three per cent of the country's population have got both doses. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - When Ms Deepshikha Saraf, 32, wanted to get vaccinated in the eastern city of Kolkata, she sought help in securing a slot.

India has digitised its vaccination programme and slots can be booked directly only on the government's CoWIn portal or through the Aarogya Setu app .

That is not as straightforward as it sounds since a demand-supply mismatch after India opened the vaccination programme to the larger population has resulted in people chasing after elusive slots that have become harder to pinpoint.

So Ms Saraf signed up with under45.in, a private vaccine slot finder, on May 7.

"The next day it alerted me of the bookings being open. It was nearly real time. (Booking) straight through CoWIn is harrowing because of the uncertainty," said the content writer, who desperately wanted to get vaccinated amid a second wave of Covid-19 infections across the country.

The website alerted her through messaging app Telegram and she was able to book her slot on the CoWIn website.

Booking a slot can only be done on CoWIn. She has since successfully booked slots for 22 other people.

"I was one of the first few people to get vaccinated in my city. We were all very conscious and concerned about things (happening) outside. We were all looking for vaccination options."

As the vaccination programme chugs on, several such websites and apps by private individuals and large companies like Airtel and Paytm, which claims to have over 1.5 million users, have become popular among people keen to get vaccinated against the coronavirus as quickly as possible.

These apps and websites are saving people from spending hours on CoWIn, refreshing the page constantly to grab slots as they become available.

The government has allowed third-party help in tracking down slots by making available the application programming interface (API), giving developers access to the proprietary software application.

Mr Berty Thomas, who came up with under45.in, said that he first wrote code to track down a vaccination slot for himself in the southern city of Chennai. He then shared it with friends and went public after getting requests from people in many cities.

In one instance of the supply-demand mismatch, he noted 30,000 registrations on his website from the southern city of Bengaluru, when only 200 to 300 slots were available.

"That's a huge mismatch. It's actually getting increasingly difficult for people to get access to these slots," he said.

"This is a problem for the whole of India."

Around 1.4 million people have registered with his website since he set it up on April 29.

India's vaccination programme has acquired a new urgency following a second wave of Covid-19 infections and deaths that has exceeded the first wave.

India has seen a decline from peak infections and, in the 24 hours up to Saturday (May 22), recorded 257,299 new cases and 4,194 deaths.

The vaccination drive was off to a slow start in January, with residents being hesitant to sign up but now demand has gone up as the government opened the campaign to those between 18 and 45 years of age.

The country is using AstraZeneca's Covishield, Bharati Biotech's Covaxin and Russia's Sputnik vaccines.

Since January, over 193 million doses have been administered. But only around 3 per cent of the country's population have got both doses.

Those running vaccine slot finders said that the shortage of vaccines was most acute in metropolitan areas.

"The situation with the slots is getting better in non-metro areas. We are seeing multiple open centres in multiple districts but in metro cities it continues to be very hard to book a slot," said Mr Shyam Sunder, who launched getjab.in on May 2 with three of his engineer friends.

Their website has half a million active users and more than 4,000 verified reports of users getting a jab.

"But certain areas seem to be getting much higher supply than others. Increased vaccine availability in certain areas is what we think is causing it."

India's vaccine procurement policy was changed to allow private firms and states to directly approach vaccine manufacturers to negotiate for vaccines. This has seen a scramble for vaccines with some states getting more than others.

Vaccine shortages remain the core problem.

The government last week publicly estimated 1.46 billion doses of all three vaccines would be available between August and December. But a Reuters report this week said that the government may fall short of that target.

Vaccine manufacturers are trying to boost production. Bharat Biotech said on Thursday it would ramp up vaccine production by an additional 200 million doses per year by the fourth quarter.

India's vaccine woes have also been compounded with the circulation of fake apps and websites.

The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (Cert-In) warned against fake vaccine registration apps under the name of CoWIn stealing personal data.

"Beware of phishing and fake domains, e-mails, text messages and phone calls which falsely claim Covid-19 vaccine registrations," it said.

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