India's effort to expand vaccination drive from May 1 runs into problems amid second Covid-19 wave

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

NEW DELHI - India's effort to ramp up its vaccination programme to cover everyone above the age of 18 from Saturday (May 1) is in disarray.

Many people were unsuccessful when trying to register for the jab, while those who managed to do so were unable to locate vaccination centres. On top of this, several states have requested more time to expand the programme, saying they did not have adequate supplies of vaccines.

Some 24.5 million people between the age of 18 and 45 have registered for their shots but it was apparent on social media and elsewhere that the experience has been anything but smooth sailing.

"I've indeed managed to register after an hour or two of trying. But booking a slot is still out of sight for me. There was one hospital available initially for 45-plus persons, but even that is unavailable now. The list is blank," said Mr Ayush Basu, 20 from the city of Kolkatta in West Bengal.

"And I want my vaccination process to start by the first week of May at least. The more I wait, the riskier it gets," he added.

India is in the midst of a devastating second Covid-19 wave, with cases shooting up exponentially. In the 24 hours up to Friday (April 30), it recorded 386,452 new cases and 3,498 deaths.

The total number of infections has now passed 18 million and vaccinations at this point are seen to be crucial for the populous country.

India has been using two vaccines for its national inoculation programme. Covishield, the domestically-produced AstraZeneca vaccine, which is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Covaxin, an indigenous product made by Bharat Biotech.

Russia's Sputnik V has also been authorised for use and Indian media reported that the first batch is set to arrive on Saturday, although pricing and availability have yet to be announced.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the procurement policy for the vaccines last week, decentralising the process. States and private hospitals can now place orders directly with the manufacturers instead of going through the federal government.

States will have to pay 300 rupees (S$5) for a single dose of Covishield and 400 rupees for Covaxin.

Maharashtra, the worst-affected state in the country, has said it will not start the vaccination drive without procuring 2.5 million to three million vials of vaccine first. The state capital, Mumbai, a metropolis with nearly 12.5 million people, has announced a shutdown of its vaccination drive for three days because of inadequate supplies.

Delhi also appears to be caught in the same quandary, with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal urging people not to crowd vaccination centres.

"We have not received the vaccines yet. We are hopeful that they will reach by tomorrow or the day after," he said on Friday.

The federal government insists there is no shortage of vaccines.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said the states should have more than 10 million doses remaining in stock from the previous distribution exercise.

Another two million are set to become available in the next few days.

India's vaccine journey has been one of highs and lows. It started off on a bright note as a major vaccine exporter, supplying to dozens of countries. Data from the ministry of external affairs showed that 66.3 million doses were sent overseas until April 16.

At home, though, the situation has been far less rosy as the vaccination drive got off to a slow start with many people hesitant about getting the jab.

India's initial target was to inoculate 300 million people by August. So far, 15.22 million have been vaccinated since the programme was rolled out on Jan 16. While that number is impressive when compared with most countries, it is still seen as inadequate, taking into account the size of the country's population, which is 1.35 billion

Questions have now arisen over whether India has enough production capacity for vaccines as its two main producers are inundated with orders from multiple states and hospitals.

SII produces around 70 million doses of Covishield every month. Bharat Biotech has ramped up capacity and now produces around 58 million doses of Covaxin a month.

"Who will be given priority? Surely, it can't be first come, first served. Neither can it be based on the quantum of order placed. Who will decide on allocation of vaccines across 28 states and eight union territories?... Because the fact is vaccine stocks are limited, and it has to be rationed. The vaccine basket has all of two vaccines. The new ones are weeks, if not months, away," said the Indian Express in an editorial.

Meanwhile, anxiety levels are also mounting for those waiting to get their second dose.

Dr Aniruddh Wadvikar, a general practitioner in Thane, which is just outside Mumbai, has been unsuccessful in trying to book the second dose for his 83-year-old grandfather as well as his 54-year-old father.

"I'm not particularly stressed but I am frustrated," said Dr Wadvikar.

"Even if the walk-in option is active at some places, I am a little apprehensive about taking them into public places and making them wait in a line for hours on end, increasing their chances of exposure," he said.

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