Young Indians find ways to get Covid-19 jabs ahead of schedule as infections rise

India's second wave of infections has created anxiety over the slow pace of vaccinations.
India's second wave of infections has created anxiety over the slow pace of vaccinations.PHOTO: AFP

CHENNAI - Young people in India are trying to get vaccinated against Covid-19 even though the country is currently offering the jab only to those over 45 years of age.

Last week, a 32-year-old accountant in Chennai managed to get his family of five - including two 20-something housekeepers - vaccinated through a doctor in his neighbourhood.

"We are all caretakers of our 88-year-old grandmother who lives with us, and I go to the office, so we wanted to make sure we are safe," said the accountant.

In the ongoing third phase of the coronavirus vaccination drive in India, all citizens above 45 are eligible for inoculation. Healthcare and front-line workers received the vaccine in the first phase, and senior citizens in the second.

India has approved two Covid-19 vaccines for use in its population: Covishield, which is Serum Institute's AstraZeneca-Oxford formulation, and Bharat Biotech's indigenous Covaxin.

As at Wednesday (April 7), and since a nationwide vaccination drive began on Jan 16, the country has recorded 12.8 million infections and has administered around 83 million vaccine doses.

India's second wave of infections has created anxiety over the slow pace of vaccinations.

Even as health experts advise the government to expand the vaccination roll-out to all age groups, Indians in some states are already finding ways around the rules.

News website Scroll.in reported that more than 900 students aged under 45 from the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, got vaccinated last week.

It is unclear how they are bypassing the system.

A Chennai private hospital doctor said he called interested individuals for the jab on days when there were few registrations on CoWIN, the centralised app people who are eligible for the jab use to sign up for appointments.

"Each Covishield vial has 10 shots. If multiples of 10 people don't turn up that day, we have to discard the open vial with some doses left (because they'll expire)," he said.

"Instead, I give young people with co-morbidities the doses. It is better than wasting precious vaccine."

These individuals, however, do not get an official certificate because the app rejects applicants aged under 45. The accountant's family got a handwritten note from the doctor.

It is less easy in states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Odisha and Telangana, which have all complained of vaccine shortages.

Four Mumbai hospitals refused to inoculate Ms Diya Chitre, 36, who is diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I was told I'm too young, although cancer makes me more vulnerable to a severe case of Covid-19. I'm scared all the time now," said Ms Chitre.

Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, is home to nearly half of India's Covid-19 infections.

Oncologist Ganapathi Bhat said India should prioritise cancer patients for the vaccine whatever their age because they are immunocompromised and are more likely to die if they get infected.

As there are mobility restrictions imposed to battle rising infections, leaders in Maharashtra and Delhi sought vaccines for anyone aged over 25. The Indian Medical Association, too, has asked for vaccination to be open to all adults.

But on Monday, Indian Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan ruled out widening the eligibility or allowing domestic commercial sale of vaccines.

"There are two aims of such vaccination drives: to prevent deaths and protect the healthcare system. The aim is not to administer the vaccine to those who want it but to those who need it," he said.

The Health Ministry also asked states to penalise centres that offer vaccines - "a precious commodity" - to those below 45 years old.

The fact that the vaccine is not available to more age groups seems to be due to supply constraints.

Serum Institute's chief executive Adar Poonawala told NDTV he was "very stressed" at demands to manufacture Covishield faster and at a tenth of the international price for India, which has "first claim" over the vaccine.

Until manufacturing catches up and new candidates such as Russia's Sputnik V are approved for use, Ms Malini Aisola, convener of the All India Drug Action Network, said: "Getting vaccinated outside the determined criteria is risky business because there is no record, which is important from the point of view of reviewing any adverse events that may occur.

"Given the current supply constraints, there are also ethical and practical concerns about diverting doses away from those who are presently prioritised."