India will roll out an ambitious nationwide vaccination drive against COVID-19 on Saturday, aiming to inoculate 300 million people, or nearly one quarter of the population, by July.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Monday that with the upcoming immunization drive, which would be the world’s largest such program, the country is entering into a “decisive phase” in the fight against the pandemic.
In the first phase, 30 million health care and frontline workers such as police personnel will be vaccinated. The vaccines will then be administered to about 270 million people above the age of 50 and younger people with serious health problems, according to the Health Ministry.
Modi underlined India’s two major advantages – the two vaccines that have been approved for emergency use are being manufactured domestically, giving it access to millions of doses.
“This is a matter of pride for us,” said the prime minister.
In an interaction with chief ministers on the vaccination drive, Modi also noted Indian vaccines are more cost effective than others in the world.
The price for the first 100 million doses of the British developed AstraZeneca vaccine will be manufactured by an Indian company and is expected to be around $ 2.75 per dose for the government. The vaccine cost will be much higher when it is made available in the private market.
India is hoping its experience in running huge vaccination drives will come in handy as it gears up to launch the COVID-19 immunization program. Every year the government inoculates nearly 55 million infants and pregnant women against diseases such as polio and measles.
But health experts warn that reaching a far bigger adult population poses much greater challenges -- India will need to administer 600 million shots to meet its target of reaching 300 million people over the coming months.
Authorities have trained thousands of health care workers to administer the vaccines, ramped up cold storage equipment such as freezers and refrigerators and set up vaccination centers through the country.
Most of the initial inoculations are expected to be of the AstraZeneca vaccine that is being produced by the Serum Institute of India.
Covaxin, the second vaccine approved for emergency use, has been developed by a domestic company, Bharat Biotech. It will be administered in “clinical trial mode,” as the final results of trials are still awaited.
Some experts have raised concerns about clearing that vaccine without lack of data showing its efficacy, but the drug regulator has said it is “safe.”
Both vaccines will be given in two doses and can be stored at temperatures of two to eight degrees Celsius.
With 10.5 million infections, India is the world’s second worst hit nation, but its daily count of new cases has fallen to less than 20,000 in recent weeks compared to about 95,000 in September, when infections peaked.
There is optimism that the declining number of infections and the vaccination program will not just bring the pandemic under control but also revive an economy reeling under its worst contraction in 40 years.
"With India about to roll out its vaccination program, the accruals of the economic benefits would be significant, especially to sectors such as hospitality, transportation, entertainment, which were hit hard during the pandemic," according to Deepak Sood, secretary general of the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India.
India’s economy, one of the worst hit by the pandemic, is expected to shrink by 7.5% this financial year which ends in March.