NEW DELHI - One of the world's largest vaccination campaigns was launched on Saturday (Jan 16) in India with a sanitation worker alongwith doctors and nurses receiving their shots in what the government declared as the beginning of the road to victory against Covid-19.
In a procedure broadcast live throughout the nation, sanitation worker Manish Kumar, 34, took the honour of being the first person to be vaccinated, receiving it at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences, a top medical institute.
The vaccination drive was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was clearly overcome by emotion when, in an address broadcast live to the more than 3,000 vaccination centres, he thanked healthcare workers for their efforts over the past year.
"They stayed away from their families to serve humanity. And hundreds of them never went home. They gave their life to save others. And that is why the first jabs are being given to healthcare workers - this is our way of paying respect to them," said Mr Modi.
"Such a vaccination drive at such a massive scale was never conducted in history," he added.
Ten million healthcare workers will be the first to get the twin-dose vaccine followed by 20 million frontline workers like prison staff and police. Some 270 million people above the age of 50 and those under 50 with comorbidities will be vaccinated within the next six months.
At AIIMS, Mr Kumar, dressed in a grey uniform, said that he was very excited and had no hesitation unlike some of his colleagues.
"I was not reluctant to get the vaccine shot. People should have full confidence in getting the shot. I am feeling fine," said Mr Kumar, who has worked at the hospital for over eight years.
Those who got their shots at the AIIMS were kept under observation for 30 minutes with a separate room prepared in case anyone recipients suffered adverse reactions.
Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla, whose company is manufacturing the AstraZeneca and Oxford University vaccine, AIIMS director Randeep Guleria were some of the high-profile individuals among the 165,714 people across the country who got the vaccine on Saturday.
"The fight against Covid is already on its road to victory. These vaccines are our life-saving drugs that got us the clinching victory," Dr Harsh Vardhan, the health minister, declared.
India is the world's second worst hit country by Covid-19 , after the United States, with over 10.5 million cases.
India, however, has witnessed a downward trend in the number of daily cases since September. The number of Covid-19 deaths in the country is 152,130.
Authorities also launched a major drive on Saturday to assuage concerns about the vaccines.
India has approved two vaccines for emergency use including Covishield, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, and another called Covaxin developed by local firm Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) - National Institute of Virology (NIV).
But the government has dismissed apprehensions about the local vaccine and said recipients would not have a choice at this point.
Bharat Biotech also said it would compensate anyone who suffered serious adverse effects from Covaxin.
"We have two great vaccines that will turn the tide against the coronavirus. Please have faith in the decision of the scientific community. This is not a time for choice. The choice will come when there is enough availability," said Dr. V. K. Paul, a member of the government policy think-tank, NITI Aayog, who disclosed that he received Covaxin on Saturday.
"I am proud, I got Covaxin. Please embrace the vaccine," he said.
Indian authorities and experts said that the country's experience in handling a general election - a massive exercise with many moving parts - and its embrace of technology for government programmes as well as its immunisation programme involving millions of children and pregnant women would all come in good use when it has to scale up the vaccination exercise.
"The (vaccination) campaign has been well planned, with good centre-state coordination. As the programme expands, more people need to be trained to administer the vaccination and the vaccination centres may need to be increased," said Prof.K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.
"The number of people to be vaccinated will increase in the subsequent phases. Especially, as we expand to rural areas and small towns.
Dr Paul too acknowledged the challenge facing the country.
"I think the challenge is that a large population has to be vaccinated over a short period and the supply chain needs to be ramped up. India will show it can do it," he said.