India kicks off massive vaccine drive as fears loom over safety of jabs

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the program with a speech addressing more than 3,300 centers across India, where the first shots were given
Health-workers flashed victory signs after being given coronavirus vaccines, while top officials sought to dispel fears about the shots as India kicked off one of the largest inoculation drives in the world on Saturday, setting in motion a complex plan to stem still rising infections across the nation of more than 1.3 billion people.

At hospitals and vaccination centers in major Indian cities -- from Mumbai to New Delhi -- a total of 224,301 people received vaccines over the weekend, according to data released by the federal health ministry. Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the program with a speech addressing more than 3,300 centers across India, where the first shots were given.

A health worker administers a Covid-19 vaccine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi

“These vaccines will help India win the battle against the virus,” Modi said, adding that Indians should get the shots and not pay heed to any anti-vaccine propaganda.

India’s rollout is being closely watched as a test case for whether Covid-19 can be swiftly tamed via vaccination in developing nations, where health and transportation networks are often disjointed. Officially, more than 10.5 million people have been infected with the disease in India, where it has also killed more than 150,000.

The world’s second-most populous nation, India is embarking on one of the earliest and most ambitious vaccination programs in Asia, where many countries are taking a slower approach in vaccinating their citizens. That’s partly because those places are facing less severe virus outbreaks than India, which has the second-highest number of infections in the world, after the U.S.

‘Have Faith’

As vaccines started to be administered, Randeep Guleria, a member of Modi’s taskforce for Covid-19 management and V.K. Paul, who heads a panel advising the prime minister on the country’s efforts to produce and roll-out the inoculations, sought to dispel fears about inoculation.

A medical staff ready to sanitize visitors at an entrance to the Max Smart Super Specialty Hospital in New Delhi

Questions around vaccine safety and efficacy emerged after India’s drug regulator gave the green light to local firm Bharat Biotech International Ltd’s Covaxin shot this month even though it has yet to clear final-stage trials. Both Guleria and Paul told reporters they were injected with the controversial vaccine in New Delhi.

“Don’t go by the various statements going around on social media about side effects. Have faith in your scientists and your researchers and the regulator,” Guleria said. “Come forward, get yourself be vaccinated.”

India has also granted an emergency-use license to the Serum Institute of India Ltd., which has partnered with AstraZeneca Plc to make at least one billion doses of their shot.

“I have no apprehension -- both the vaccines are safe,” said Sandeep Nayar, 54, a senior doctor at the BLK Super Specialty Hospital in New Delhi, who had been chosen to get the first vaccine at his hospital. He flashed a victory sign for waiting photographers after receiving the injection.

AstraZeneca Shots

On Saturday, Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of Serum, posted a video of himself being injected as well.

In a hospital in Mumbai, health workers chanted the Hindu god Ganesha’s name, believed to bless new beginnings, as they moved vials from cold storage to the vaccination sites. Many health workers and hospital staff shortlisted to be vaccinated on the first day of the campaign said they were relieved to be on the list.

A volunteer registers for a coronavirus vaccine at a hospital in Mumbai

India’s effort comes as some more-developed nations struggle in trying to rush out inoculations. Though the U.S. and other countries have stockpiled hundreds of millions of doses, but the pace of vaccinations has been challenged by unexpected glitches and logistical problems.

India has made its first purchase of 11 million AstraZeneca shots, as well as 5.5 million vials of Covaxin, the indigenous vaccine produced by Bharat Biotech.

Plans drawn up by India’s health ministry outline steps to vaccinate 300 million people in the first stage through August.

In an initial round, 30 million health care and front line workers -- such as the police and defense forces -- will receive injections. The second phase is targeted at about 270 million people above the age of 50 and those at particular risk to Covid. The process will draw on existing networks used to vaccinate tens of millions of babies each year against diseases such as polio.

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India’s deployment blueprint “has a level of detail which I haven’t seen in any other rollout plans,” said Prashant Yadav, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington.

Nursing staff receive a doctor's briefing in New Delhi

But those arrangements may face bottlenecks and vaccine wastage when implemented by the country’s four levels of government, particularly once deployment fans out to India’s rural hinterland, he said.

“There are going to be clinics in places which don’t have as much demand as was originally planned, which requires changing the plan, making supply shift to other locations quickly,” Yadav said. “Is the decision-making going to be agile?”

Yadav added that “it’s unclear whether every state, district, every vaccine site will get both,” and if Indians will get a choice. “People have questions about both, but particularly about one of them,” he said. “That is the trickiest part of this rollout.”

Government officials have been adamant that both vaccines are safe and have urged the public to get inoculated.

For now, health experts and industry specialists are confident the initial phase in urban centers will be relatively well managed. The real test will come as India widens its vaccination net.

“This is a very huge operation. The largest vaccination program ever, therefore there will be challenges,” Guleria said. “Both in terms of getting the right people to come at the right time” and “following that up to see that they get the second dose at the right time.”

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