From glitches to glory: How India transformed its COVID-19 vaccination drive

·7 min read

India is set to reach the milestone next week of administering over 100 crore COVID-19 vaccine doses.

As of 13 October, India had administered 96.43 crore vaccine doses and was slowly marching towards the 100-crore mark.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said that 73 percent of the country's eligible population had received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccines and over 28 crore additional doses will be produced in the days ahead.

He added that about 29 per cent of the eligible population has been administered both doses of COVID-19 vaccines. "States have now over eight crore doses with them," he said.

According to a report in News18, various events have been planned on the day of the achievement and Prime Minister Narendra Modi may also address the nation thanking healthcare workers for their historic feat.

Grand start

Amid much hoopla and hype, India launched its COVID-19 vaccination drive on 16 January. In its first phase, the nation targeted its 10 million health-workers, who were deemed to have high risk of exposure to the infection.

Excitement was palpable as health-workers queued up at India's 3,006 sites on the fateful Saturday morning to get their jab.

The first dose was administered to a sanitation worker at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital, New Delhi. The government dubbed the vaccination drive "probably the beginning of the end" of COVID-19. Following the first phase where health-workers were being administered the 'Made in India' vaccines €" Covishield from Serum Institute of India and Covaxin from Bharat Biotech, the government announced the second phase on 1 March for senior citizens above 60 years of age, and people above 45 years of age with co-morbidities. At that point, India's tally of infections stood at over 11.03 million and the death toll had already reached 1,56,567. The second phase of the vaccination also included armed forces officials, police and vulnerable groups. The drive also saw more centres being opened by private institutions. At that point, Union Information and Broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar had said that while vaccinations at government centres would be free, those opting to take their jab at private hospitals would have to pay.

Bumps ahead

Three months into the vaccine drive, after the initial excitement waned, it seemed like the government's plans were in disarray. Inoculation centres were suddenly shutting down saying they had run out of the doses. This raised concerns as India was setting daily records for infections as a second wave overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums across the country.

It was then that the Narendra Modi government had announced a change in strategy. Till then, the Centre negotiated prices with manufacturers, distributed them to states and restricted them to priority groups like the elderly and healthcare workers. However, the Centre announced that from 1 May the vaccine drive would be extended to everyone over 18 years of age and that state governments and private hospitals can purchase doses directly from manufacturers, triggering a desperate free-for-all rush to secure shots from an already strapped market.

BBC quoted public health experts as saying that a cocktail of blunders €" poor planning, piecemeal procuring and unregulated pricing €" by Modi's government turned India's vaccine drive into a deeply unfair competition. "How did the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, often dubbed the 'pharmacy of the world' for generic drugs, end up with so few vaccines for itself?" the experts asked in the BBC report. The government also faced harsh criticism for exporting jabs at a time when its own citizens were struggling to get their jab. Contrast that with the United States and European Union, who had pre-ordered more doses than they required.

Another problem that the vaccination drive faced was the fact that walk-ins weren't allowed and everyone had to register for their jabs on the CoWin portal. Not surprisingly, the day the registrations opened for those above the age of 18, the website crashed, leading to people complaining about their appointments being cancelled.

Many also argued that in a country where internet services haven't percolated to every nook and corner, the government's push was faulty. For instance, how would a poor rural youth, who doesn't own a phone, book his/her appointment for their vaccine?

New entrants and improvements

In mid-May, India's vaccine drive received a boost when the first lot of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine was made available in the Indian market at a time when the country grappled with a deadly second wave of infections.

At the time, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said: "Appropriate timely response @cgstcushyd. Need of the hour."

July also saw an uptick in the vaccinations, making it the best month till then for the inoculation programme.

The country administered 12.9 crore doses in July, compared with 11.27 crore in June, according to data from the government's CoWin dashboard. The daily average vaccinations in July rose to 41.5 lakh from 37.56 lakh in the month before.

The turnaround was mostly due to Serum Institute of India, which cranked out more doses of Covishield.

In August, it was reported that a total of 366 million people had been vaccinated since the drive started on 15 January. Out of that number, 296 million have received their first jabs and another 69.8 million have had their full quota of two injections.

A huge milestone was recorded on 27 August when the nation administered over one crore COVID-19 vaccine doses on a single day, with Uttar Pradesh topping the list of states with 28 lakh-plus jabs.

Prime Minister Modi had tweeted then: "Crossing 1 crore is a momentous feat. Kudos to those getting vaccinated and those making the vaccination drive a success".

Another huge record was achieved on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's birthday, 17 September, during which the nation administered 466 doses per second. That's right! On that day, India administered over two crore COVID-19 vaccine doses to the beneficiaries, taking the cumulative score of vaccinations to over 78.72 crore. Taking to Twitter, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said (in Hindi): "A gift to the prime minister on behalf of health workers and people of the country. On the birthday of Prime Minister Narendra Modi today, India has crossed the historic figure of administering 2 crore vaccine doses in a day, setting a new record. Well done India!"

In October, India's vaccine drive got a technological boost when a drone delivered COVID-19 vaccines from the Bishnupur district hospital to Loktak lake, Karang island in Manipur for administration at a primary health centre.

Soon for kids

As the vaccine drive accelerated, India also started mulling over opening the programme for children.

On Tuesday, a ray of hope emerged for parents across the country when an expert panel recommended Covaxin - Bharat Biotech's COVID-19 vaccine - for use on children between the ages of two and 18.

Dr Randeep Guleria, chief of Delhi's AIIMS, has stressed that children in the two-18 age group must be vaccinated "because that's the only way to get rid of the pandemic".

Now, we have to wait and see if India can achieve her aim of vaccinating the entire population by this December-end.

With inputs from agencies

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