India starts world’s largest vaccination drive

NEW DELHI (AP) — India started inoculating health workers yesterday in what is likely the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination campaign, joining the ranks of wealthier nations where the effort is already well underway.

India is home to the world’s largest vaccine makers and has one of the biggest immunisation programmes. But there is no playbook for the enormity of the current challenge.

Indian authorities hope to give shots to 300 million people, roughly the population of the United States (US) and several times more than its existing programme that targets 26 million infants. The recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other frontline workers, to be followed by 270 million people who are either over 50 years old or have illnesses that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.

For workers who have pulled India’s battered healthcare system through the pandemic, the shots offered confidence that life can start returning to normal. Many burst with pride.

“I am excited that I am among the first to get the vaccine,” Gita Devi, a nurse, said as she lifted her left sleeve to receive the shot.

“I am happy to get an India-made vaccine and that we do not have to depend on others for it,” said Devi, who has treated patients throughout the pandemic in a hospital in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state in India’s heartland.

Medical workers wait to be inoculated with a Covid-19 vaccine at a hospital in New Delhi, India. PHOTO: AFP

The first dose was administered to a sanitation worker at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital New Delhi, after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted the campaign with a nationally televised speech.

“We are launching the world’s biggest vaccination drive and it shows the world our capability,” Modi said. He implored citizens to keep their guard up and not to believe any “rumours about the safety of the vaccines”.

It was not clear whether Modi, 70, had taken the vaccine himself like other world leaders as an example of the shot’s safety. His government has said politicians will not be considered priority groups in the first phase of the rollout.

Health officials haven’t specified what percentage of India’s nearly 1.4 billion people will be targetted by the campaign. But experts said it will almost certainly be the largest such drive globally.

The sheer scale has its obstacles. For instance, India plans to rely heavily on a digital platform to track the shipment of vaccines. But public health experts point out that the Internet remains patchy in large parts of the country.

Around 100 people were vaccinated in each of the 3,006 centres across the country on the first day, the Health Ministry said.

India on January 4 approved emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and United Kingdom-based drugmaker AstraZeneca, and another by Indian company Bharat Biotech.