COVID-19: India’s vaccine rollout faces tough battles

India needs to work through a strategy not only for sourcing vaccines quicker but also for more effective implementation

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“I am terrified about my 80-year-old parents in Pune,” a friend revealed recently. It is a sentiment shared by a large number of Indian-Australians as reports of surging COVID-19 cases in India dominate the headlines. With restricted options to travel, should there be an emergency, many live in dread of receiving that message urging them to come home.

It is alarming to see this state of affairs in a country that proclaims its world dominance economically. Private hospitals are running out of beds and ventilators, and in public hospitals patients are now sharing beds. New Zealand recently shut its borders to India, concerned by the spread of the virus there.

The picture in India is markedly different as compared to the United States, even as both nations lead the world in COVID-19 infection rates. Both would no doubt have had a vaccine strategy in place when the pandemic was confirmed by WHO in March 2020. Yet, about a year in, they seem to be headed into opposite directions.

In the US, all adults were assured a deadline of 1 May to be eligible to receive the vaccine. This has been brought forward by two weeks to 17 April. In India, on the other hand, the vaccine rollout seems to be faltering. The United States have 21 per cent of their population vaccinated, India is still at 0.83 per cent.

One of the reasons for the success in the US was the establishment of a partnership between the government and private enterprise, aptly named Operation Warp Speed. Set up in in March 2020, Operation Warp Speed worked to research, trial, approve and manufacture a vaccine, in a US $11 billion project. With Pfizer, the US government placed an order to buy 100 million doses of the vaccine, with an option to buy an additional 500 million, a total of 600 million doses. The government not only funded the research and helped upgrade manufacturing facilities but also became a buyer of the vaccine.

READ ALSO: COVID vaccine: Q&A with Dr Vyom

india vaccine
A health official conducts routine checks of the Electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network (EVIN) ice line cold storage refrigerator at a state vaccine storage centre in Bangalore, India, 10 January 2021. Source: AAP

In India, the Serum Institute of India (SII) took the initiative and under licence from AstraZeneca, negotiated a deal to manufacture 1 billion doses in 12 months. No funding came from the Indian government. In fact, SII had a deal to supply the first 100 million vaccines at a price of Rs 200 ($4) and subsequent doses at higher prices. But till Jan 2021, the Indian government had not confirmed how many vaccines would be needed and when. When it did, it ordered only 11 million doses.

While India has administered 100 million doses to date, it is just not good enough for a country needing over 2.5 billion doses, as each individual has to get two shots.

Whereas other governments globally have invested in manufacturing facilities to ramp up production, the Indian side has been swamped with red tape and lack of support by the government. The companies which could well have allowed India to get on top of the vaccine rollouts, needed to be encouraged, as in the United States, rather than be kept in suspense about their future.

Added to the current state of affairs, has been poor messaging on social distancing and good hygiene. States like Delhi and Maharashtra are facing new bouts of the pandemic with lockdowns now being enforced. Yet mass congregations (rallies/religious gatherings) continue despite the spread.

While these can be stop gap measures, the only way to stop the spread will be through vaccinations. The quicker the health officials in the country can work through a strategy of not only sourcing but implementing the vaccinations, the quicker will India come out on the other side of COVID-19.

READ ALSO: What’s the new coronavirus variant in India and how should it change their COVID response?

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Pawan Luthra
Pawan Luthra
Pawan is the publisher of Indian Link and is one of Indian Link's founders. He writes the Editorial section.

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