Despite chronic shortage India expands vaccine drive

New Delhi: India was set to open its massive vaccination drive to all adults on Saturday, but many states lack the required supplies as hospitals grapple with a Covid shortage.

Just two months ago, India's health minister declared that the pandemic was nearing its "end game," as New Delhi dispatched millions of vaccines to dozens of countries.

With nearly 400,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths every day, the world's second-most populated country has become the epicenter of the global epidemic.

To prioritize India's needs, India's Serum Institute has frozen exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine and Bharat Biotech's homegrown Covaxin.

Until now, vaccines were only provided to "frontline" employees such as emergency personnel, people over 45, and those with pre-existing illnesses.

Also this more modest initiative, however, has faltered, with some places running out of shots and others discarding them due to a lack of demand, owing in part to the recent boom.

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

Around 150 million shots have been given out so far, accounting for 11.5 percent of the world's 1.3 billion inhabitants. Only 25 million people have received two shots.

Anxiety and bewilderment 

On Saturday, the service will be extended to all Indians over the age of 18, a population of approximately 600 million people.

Millions of young people have enrolled on the government's digital portal, afraid of the current situation and anxious to get inoculated.

However, only a small number of them have been appointed, and many states, including the capital New Delhi, Maharashtra, and Punjab, have stated that they lack sufficient stocks.

Due to a shortage of vaccines, the megacity of Mumbai, Maharashtra's capital, suspended all vaccinations for three days on Thursday.

New Delhi's decision to ask states and private hospitals to order vaccine supplies on their own has added to the uncertainty, resulting in a three-tier pricing scheme in which they must pay more per dose than the central government.

This has resulted in squabbles between Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party's central government and states ruled by opposition parties.

According to anecdotal reports, several private clinics have been told they won't get any vials for months.

"The whole thing looks like a confused elephant to me right now," said 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," John told AFP.

Given the shortages and the country's massive population, he and other experts argue that India should adopt a far more focused approach, focusing on vaccines in high-risk areas.

Gujarat is one of the few states that has confirmed that it will do so, with chief minister Vijay Rupani stating on Friday that vaccinations for those over the age of 18 will only take place in the ten worst-affected districts.

Serum currently produces 60-70 million AstraZeneca doses each month, with the aim of reaching 100 million by July. Bharat aims to produce ten million per month, with a target of 60-70 million.

Other shots, such as Russia's Sputnik V — some doses of which were expected to arrive soon — and Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine, are also being produced by Indian companies, but deployment could take months.

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