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India starts booster shots for vulnerable

NEW DELHI (AP) — Healthcare and front-line workers along with people above age 60 with health problems lined up yesterday at vaccination centres across India to receive a third dose as infections linked to the Omicron variant surge.

The doses, which India is calling a “precautionary” shot instead of a booster, were given as new confirmed coronavirus infections rocketed to over 179,000 yesterday, nearly an eightfold increase in a week. Hospitalisations, while still relatively low, are also beginning to rise in large, crowded cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.

Dr Ravindra Kumar Dewan, who heads the National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases in New Delhi, queued up for his shot. He said boosters are a “significant step” because there are still many unknowns about the Omicron variant.

“Yesterday, the mortality… has increased in Delhi. So, whether our healthcare system will get overwhelmed or not is yet to be seen,” he said.

India is better prepared now than it was last year when the Delta variant overwhelmed hospitals. When cases spiked in March last year, not even one per cent of its population of nearly 1.4 billion was fully vaccinated. India’s creaky medical infrastructure meant millions likely died.

Since then, the government has bolstered healthcare, built oxygen plants and added beds to hospitals. About 47 per cent of the population is now fully vaccinated and many have antibodies from previous infections. This may provide “hybrid immunity” – a combination of immunity from previous infections and vaccines – comparable to boosters, said Indian epidemiologist Dr Chandrakant Lahariya.

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