India began vaccinating health workers on Saturday as part of what is likely the largest Covid-19 vaccination campaign in the world, joining the ranks of richer nations where efforts are well advanced.
The country is home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers and has one of the largest vaccination programs. But there is no playbook for the enormous challenge.
Indian authorities hope to shoot 300 million people, roughly the US population and more than the existing program that targets 26 million infants. Recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other frontline workers, followed by 270 million others who are either over 50 years old or have diseases that make them susceptible to COVID-19.
The first dose of a vaccine was given to a health worker at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital, New Delhi, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the campaign with a nationally televised speech. Priority groups across the country, from the Himalayan Mountains to the Andamans in the Bay of Bengal, received it shortly afterwards.
“We are starting the world’s largest vaccination campaign and it shows the world our capabilities,” said Modi in his address. He pleaded with citizens to remain vigilant and not to believe “rumors about vaccine safety”.
It wasn’t clear if Modi, 70, took the vaccine itself like other world leaders as an example of the safety of the shot. His administration has stated that politicians will not be considered priority groups in the first phase of the rollout.
Health officials have not stated what percentage of the nearly 1.4 billion people will be affected by the campaign. However, experts say it will almost certainly be the largest such drive in the world.
The sheer scale has its obstacles. For example, India plans to rely heavily on a digital platform to track vaccine shipments and deliveries. However, public health experts point out that the internet remains inconsistent across much of the country and some remote villages are completely disconnected.
Around 100 people will be vaccinated on the first day in each of the country’s 3,006 centers, the health ministry said this week.
India nodded on Jan. 4 for the emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and UK-based drug maker AstraZeneca and one developed by Indian company Bharat Biotech. Cargo planes flew 16.5 million shots in various Indian cities last week.
Health experts fear that the governmental abbreviation to approve the Bharat Biotech vaccine, without waiting for concrete data to demonstrate its effectiveness in preventing disease from the coronavirus, could add to the vaccine’s hesitation. At least one state health minister has spoken out against its use.
India’s Ministry of Health has resisted the criticism, saying the vaccines are safe, but claims that health workers will have no choice over which vaccine they would get themselves.
According to Dr. S. P. Kalantri, director of a rural hospital in Maharashtra, India’s hardest-hit state, was concerned about such an approach, saying that regulatory approval was premature and unscientific.
“In a rush to be populist, the government makes decisions that may not be in the best interests of the common man,” Kalantri said.
Against the backdrop of the rising number of Covid-19 fatalities worldwide – more than 2 million on Friday – the clock is ticking to vaccinate as many people as possible. But the campaign was inconsistent.
In affluent countries like the United States, Great Britain, Israel, Canada, and Germany, millions of citizens have already received some level of protection, with at least one dose of vaccine being developed at a revolutionary rate and quickly approved for use.
But vaccination campaigns have hardly started elsewhere. Many experts predict another year of loss and hardship in countries like Iran, India, Mexico, and Brazil, which together account for about a quarter of the world’s deaths.
India ranks second after the US with 10.5 million confirmed cases and third in death after the US and Brazil with 152,000.
Over 35 million doses of various Covid-19 vaccines have been given worldwide, according to Oxford University.
While the bulk of COVID-19 vaccine doses have already been picked up by rich countries, Covax, a United States-backed project to deliver shots to developing parts of the world, has no vaccine, money, and logistical help.
As a result, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist warned that it is highly unlikely that herd immunity will be achieved this year that would require vaccination at least 70% of the world. As the disaster showed, wiping out the virus in a few places is not enough.
“Even if it happens in a few pockets in some countries, it won’t protect people around the world,” said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan this week.