FILE - An employee in personal protective equipment (PPE) removes vials of AstraZeneca's COVISHIELD, COVID-19 vaccine from a visual inspection machine inside a lab at Serum Institute of India, Pune, Nov. 30, 2020.
FILE - An employee in personal protective equipment (PPE) removes vials of AstraZeneca's COVISHIELD, COVID-19 vaccine from a visual inspection machine inside a lab at Serum Institute of India, Pune, Nov. 30, 2020.

NEW DELHI - India has conducted a two-day trial run for a mass coronavirus vaccination drive expected to begin in January. As the world’s second worst-hit country witnesses a huge decline in daily new infections, there are hopes that immunizations will protect it from a second wave.

In the drive that took place in the states of Punjab, Assam, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, in four corners of the vast country, authorities tested everything from the cold chain infrastructure and delivery systems to storage platforms on Monday and Tuesday.

Vaccination booths connected to cold chain points were set up in hospitals and health centers in the four states. Vaccinators were instructed on how to store and administer the shots while health workers acted as dummy beneficiaries during what was dubbed a “mock run.”

India’s immunization drive is expected to begin shortly after it grants authorization for a vaccine. The drug regulator is considering three vaccines – AstraZeneca’s, Pfizer/BioNTech’s and one developed by a domestic company, Bharat Biotech, for emergency approval.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to get the green light, according to Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute of India. The company began manufacturing the vaccine in India months ago in expectation that it will be successful in preventing COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“The emergency use authorization by the U.K. drug regulator for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 is expected by December end or first week of January. In India too, we are hoping for regulatory approval for the vaccine in a few days,” Poonawalla told reporters Monday.

The expectation of an early rollout is bringing a glimmer of hope in a country where an inadequate health system has struggled to cope with the pandemic.

“We can see the nightmare dissipating. Any reliable vaccine is good enough; they will help life limp back to normalcy,” says prominent virologist T. Jacob John. “It is especially important for senior citizens, who are most at risk of suffering from severe complications if they get COVID-19.”

Health workers collect personal data during a door-to-door survey for the first shot of COVID-19 vaccine for people above 50 years of age and those with comorbidities, in a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, Dec. 14, 2020.

Poonawalla has said most of the supply of the 50 million doses that his company has stockpiled in recent months will be distributed within the country. The company, which is the world’s largest vaccine producer, says it expects to ramp up manufacturing to 100 million doses a month by March.

India has set a target of vaccinating 300 million people over the next eight months, targeting front-line health care workers and senior citizens.

Health authorities have said they will focus on vaccinating a “critical mass” of people to break the chain of transmission of COVID-19 that has infected more than 10.2 million people in the country and claimed 148,000 lives. On Tuesday, the country reported nearly 16,500 new infections -- the lowest tally in more than six months.

“India saw one gigantic wave unlike other countries that have witnessed second and third waves,” says virologist John. “The pandemic here is like a mountain; it was a slow, six-month climb to the peak that came in September. Now we are witnessing a slow decline to the valley which we will reach in March,” says John. “Hopefully, we will not see another wave.”

A government-appointed committee of experts had said in October that the pandemic will have run its course by February.

 

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