India Covid-19 deaths spike again as vaccine shortage show up

New Delhi, India: According to health ministry data, India reported 3,645 Covid-19 deaths on Thursday, a new high for the country and a 350-plus increase from the previous day.

The coronavirus pandemic has now claimed the lives of 204,832 people in the world, though many experts believe the true toll is much higher.

India is facing an onslaught of new infections, with nearly 380,000 cases recorded in the last 24 hours, breaking yet another world record.

Over six million new cases have been reported in the country this month alone.

The surge in infections, which has been blamed in part on a new virus variant as well as large-scale political and religious activities, has overwhelmed hospitals, causing severe shortages of beds, medications, and oxygen.

In an interview with the Indian Express newspaper, the government's chief scientific advisor, K Vijay Raghavan, acknowledged that the government should have done more to plan for the second wave.

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"There were major efforts by central and state governments in ramping up hospital and healthcare infrastructure during the first wave... But as that wave declined, so perhaps did the sense of urgency to get this completed," he said.

But "it is just not possible to amplify the capacities of a public health system within a year to a level that would be sufficient to cope with what we are seeing now," he added.

People are dying outside overcrowded hospitals in New Delhi, where three people are often forced to share beds.

Shortages, confusion in India's vaccination drive

India's massive vaccination drive to combat the country's raging Covid outbreak appears to be in trouble, with its extensive inoculation program plagued by shortages, uncertainty, and political squabbles.

When the drive is opened to all adults on Saturday, just as the country is reeling from a brutal surge in cases, an estimated 500-600 million Indians will become eligible.

Until now, only "frontline" staff such as medical personnel, citizens over the age of 45, and those with pre-existing illnesses received the AstraZeneca shot or Bharat Biotech's homegrown Covaxin.

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Even this more modest initiative has struggled, with some places running out of shots and others throwing them away due to a lack of demand, which is due in part to hesitancy.

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

Stocks 

To date, approximately 150 million shots have been administered, representing 11.5 percent of India's population of 1.3 billion people. Only 25 million people have had two shots.

According to the government, Indian states have more than ten million shots on hand, with an additional eight million to be made available in the coming days.

The Serum Institute currently produces 60-70 million AstraZeneca doses per month, with a goal of reaching 100 million by July. Bharat aims to produce 10 million per month and has a goal of 60-70 million.

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Other shots produced by Indian firms include Russia's Sputnik V (some of which should arrive soon), Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine, and Novomax.

However, it may be months before these are deployed.

"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." said T Jacob John, a retired clinical virology professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore.

Targeted strategy 

Many states, including Maharashtra and New Delhi, have stated that they do not have enough vaccines to begin vaccinating all over-18s.

Despite this, and despite the fact that citizens must register on a government app, there might be a rush at vaccination centers on Saturday.

When online registration opened on Wednesday, more than 13 million people signed up, and users complained about technical difficulties.

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

As a result, squabbles have erupted between the central government, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, and states led by opposition parties.

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According to anecdotal reports, several private clinics have been informed they would not obtain any vials for many months.

According to experts, considering the shortages and the country's massive population, India should have a much more focused vaccination policy than simply opening up its program to everyone over the age of 18.

This may involve focusing vaccines in high-risk population groups and hotspots (75 percent of cases occur in nine of India's 36 regions).

"We will have to use whatever supplies are available in a very careful and judicious way," agreed Lalit Kant, former head of epidemiology and communicable diseases at the Indian Council of Medical Research.

"Priority areas must be identified by the (central government) and the states using a proper epidemiological picture to decide who needs it first," Kant told AFP.

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