India has started what is probably the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination campaign, joining the ranks of the wealthiest nations where the effort is already underway.
India is home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers and has one of the largest immunization programs. But there is no playbook for the enormity of the current challenge.
Indian authorities hope to inject 300 million people, roughly the population of the United States and several times more than their current program, which targets 26 million babies.
The recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other front-line workers, followed by 270 million people who are over 50 or suffering from diseases that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
For workers who have brought India’s battered healthcare system out of the pandemic, vaccines offered confidence that life can begin to return to normal. Many explode with pride.
“I’m happy to get a vaccine made in India and that we don’t have to depend on others to get it,” said Gita Devi, a nurse who was one of the first to receive an injection.
Ms Devi has treated patients during the pandemic at a hospital in Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh in the heart of India.
The first dose was administered to a sanitation worker at the Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital New Delhi after Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off the campaign with a nationally televised speech.
“We are launching the largest vaccination campaign in the world and it shows the world our capabilities,” Modi said. He implored citizens to keep their guard up and not believe any “rumors about vaccine safety.”
It was unclear whether Modi, 70, had received the vaccine himself, as other world leaders have done in an effort to demonstrate the safety of the injection. His government has said politicians will not be considered a priority group in the first phase of the deployment.
Health officials have not specified what percentage of India’s nearly 1.4 billion people will be targeted by the campaign. But experts say it will almost certainly be the biggest push of its kind globally.
The large scale has its obstacles and some initial drawbacks were identified. For example, there were delays in uploading the details of healthcare workers who received the injections onto a digital platform that India is using to track vaccines, the Health Ministry said.
At least 165,714 people were vaccinated on Saturday, Dr. Manohar Agnani, an official with the Ministry of Health, said in an evening briefing.
The ministry had said its goal was to inoculate 100 people in each of 3,006 vaccination centers across the country.
News cameras captured the injections in hundreds of hospitals, underscoring the hope that vaccinating people will be the first step in recovering from the pandemic that has devastated the lives of so many Indians and hit the country’s economy.
India ranks second after the United States in the number of confirmed cases, with more than 10.5 million.
The country ranks third in number of deaths, behind the United States and Brazil, with more than 152,000.
India approved on January 4 the emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by the University of Oxford and UK-based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and another by the Indian company Bharat Biotech. The cargo planes flew 16.5 million shots to different cities in India last week.
But doubts about the effectiveness of the homegrown vaccine have created a roadblock to the ambitious plan. Health experts are concerned that the government’s approval of the Bharat Biotech vaccine, without hard data to demonstrate its efficacy, could amplify questions about the vaccine. At least one state health minister has opposed its use.
“In a rush to be populist, the government (is) making decisions that might not be in the best interests of the common man,” said Dr. SP Kalantri, director of a rural hospital in Maharashtra, India’s hardest-hit state.
Dr. Kalantri said the regulatory approval was rushed and not backed by science.
In New Delhi, doctors at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, one of the largest in the city, demanded that they be given the AstraZeneca vaccine instead of the one developed by Bharat Biotech.
A union of hospital physicians said many of its members were “a little concerned about the lack of a full trial” for the native vaccine.
“Right now, we don’t have the option to choose between vaccines,” said Dr. Nirmalaya Mohapatra, vice president of the hospital’s Resident Physician Association.
The Health Ministry has been furious with the criticism. It says vaccines are safe and that healthcare workers will have no choice in deciding which vaccine to receive.
In the context of the growing global death toll from COVID-19 (it topped 2 million on Friday), time is ticking to vaccinate as many people as possible. But the campaign has been uneven.
In rich countries like the United States, Great Britain, Israel, Canada, and Germany, millions of citizens have already received some measure of protection through vaccines developed with revolutionary speed and rapidly licensed for use.
But elsewhere, immunization campaigns have barely taken off. Many experts predict another year of loss and hardship in places like Iran, India, Mexico and Brazil, which together account for about a quarter of COVID-19 deaths in the world.
More than 35 million doses of various COVID-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide, according to the University of Oxford.
While most doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have already been purchased by wealthy countries, COVAX, a UN-backed project to supply injections to parts of the developing world, has found itself without vaccines, money and logistical assistance.
As a result, World Health Organization chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan warned this week that herd immunity, which would require at least 70 percent of the world to be vaccinated, is highly unlikely to achieve this. year.
“Even if it happens in a couple of pockets, in some countries, it won’t protect people around the world,” he said.