‘World’s largest’ Covid-19 vaccination drive underway in India amid concerns over home-grown Covaxin

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally launched the “world’s largest” vaccination campaign in a video address to the nation as the country tries to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control with two locally-produced vaccines. 

“Normally, it takes many years to make a vaccine but in such a short span of time, not one, but two ‘Made in India’ vaccines are ready,” Modi said in a livestreamed speech.

The first batch of 30 million recipients are health professionals and frontline workers, including police and sanitation workers.

After that, India plans to make the vaccine available to a group of 270 million people over the age of 50, or with pre-existing conditions.

The plan to vaccinate 300m people

Indian authorities plan to vaccinate 100 people in each of the 3,006 government centers across the country, with each vaccination envisaged to take around 30 minutes.

“This vaccination program is based on the principles of priority groups to be vaccinated and healthcare workers, both in government and private sectors including ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) workers, will receive the vaccine during this phase,” the government said.

India plans to vaccinate around 300 million people with two doses in the next six to eight months.

Modi himself was not due to be getting vaccinated on Saturday, and has stated that politicians will not be considered in the priority category.

There’s been a lot of misinformation circulating over the past few months regarding vaccines, AFP reported, adding that a recent survey of 18,000 people found that 69% were in no hurry to receive the vaccine. 

Modi asked citizens not to believe any “rumors about the safety of vaccines.”

“We are launching the world’s biggest vaccination drive and it shows the world our capability.”

29,000 cold-chain points, 41,000 deep freezers…

Over the coming months, India aims to inoculate around a quarter of the population, or 300 million people.

The government aims to manage the entire process digitally with its own app, CoWIN, which will link every vaccine dose to its recipient.

India has four ‘mega depots’ to ‘hold’ the vaccines which will be ferried to state distribution hubs in temperature-controlled vans, keeping the doses colder than 8 degrees Celsius (46.4 Fahrenheit).

A total of 29,000 cold-chain points, 240 walk-in coolers, 70 walk-in freezers, 45,000 ice-lined refrigerators, 41,000 deep freezers and 300 solar fridges are at the ready.

In one recent practice run in a rural area, a consignment of dummy vaccines was photographed being delivered by bicycle, AFP reported.

To stop any of the vials being stolen and being sold on India’s large drug black market, authorities are taking no chances, with armed police guarding every truck.

CCTVs are in place at warehouses with entry subject to fingerprint authentication.

Automated data loggers will monitor storage temperature and transfer messages every three seconds to a central unit, according to the Times of India.

“Security measures are essential to not only address the issue of logistics and safety but also build confidence in people that the supply chain is intact, unbroken, and safe to the point of delivery,” Preeti Kumar, a public health specialist, told AFP.

Concerns over home-grown Covaxin

Indians will be receiving either the Oxford University/AstraZeneca’s Covishield shot made by India’s Serum Institute or the homegrown formula developed by an Indian company, Bharat Biotech.

Image: Twitter@arabnews

Recipients will not be able to choose between the two vaccines, both of which are produced locally in India. The government has already secured 11 million doses of Covishield, and 5.5 million doses of Covaxin. 

Earlier this month, the Indian government granted emergency authorization to the two vaccines.

The latter is still in phase three clinical trials, and full efficacy data is not yet out.

Some scientists, public health experts, and opposition politicians accuse the government of risking public safety to rush out an indigenously made formula out of national pride.

Bharat Biotech and Indian officials insist the formula is safe.

With Covaxin still in “clinical trial mode,” Indians being given the shot on Saturday were given a consent form to sign, with The Times of India reporting that the consent form shared with vaccination centers further stipulated that recipients of Covaxin would receive compensation if the vaccine caused any serious side-effects.

India’s drug regulating authority says Covishield is 72% effective and the results of Covaxin’s trials are expected in March.

The newspaper also reported that the consent form shared with vaccination centers also stated those receiving doses of Covaxin would be provided care in government-designated and authorized centers, should there be any serious side-effects. 

India is the second worst-affected nation in the world, after the United States, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

Over 10.5 million people in the country have been infected, with over 150,000 fatalities.

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