India began vaccinating health workers on Saturday in what is arguably the world’s largest vaccination campaign against Covid-19, joining wealthier countries where efforts are already well underway.
The country is home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers and has one of the largest immunization programs. But there is no script for the sheer scale of the challenge.
Indian authorities hope to shoot 300 million people, about the population of the US and many times more than the existing program targeting 26 million babies. Recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses, and other front-line workers, followed by 270 million others, who are either over 50 or have a disease that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19.
The first dose of a vaccine was administered 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 national televised speech. Priority groups in the vast country, from the Himalayas to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, began receiving it shortly after.
“We are launching the world’s largest vaccination program and it shows the world our capabilities,” Modi said in his speech. He implored citizens to remain vigilant and not believe “rumors about the safety of the vaccines.”
It was not clear whether Modi, 70, has taken the vaccine himself like other world leaders as an example of the safety of the shot. His government has said politicians will not be seen as priority groups in the initial phase of the rollout.
Health officials have not specified what percentage of the nearly 1.4 billion people will be targeted by the campaign. But experts say it will almost certainly be the largest such drive worldwide.
The sheer scale has its obstacles. For example, India plans to rely heavily on a digital platform to track vaccine shipping and delivery. But public health experts point out that the internet remains patchy in much of the country, with some remote villages not being connected at all.
About 100 people will be vaccinated on the first day at each of the country’s 3,006 centers, the health ministry said this week.
India nodded in favor of emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and UK-based drug manufacturer AstraZeneca, on January 4, and another by Indian company Bharat Biotech, on January 4. Cargo planes flew 16.5 million shots to various Indian cities last week.
Health experts are concerned that the regulatory shortcut taken to approve the Bharat Biotech vaccine without waiting for concrete data to demonstrate its effectiveness in preventing coronavirus disease could reinforce the vaccine’s reluctance . At least one health minister has opposed its use.
The Indian Ministry of Health has criticized the vaccines, saying the vaccines are safe, but says health workers have no choice in deciding which vaccine they should receive themselves.
According to Dr. S.P. Kalantri, the director of a rural hospital in Maharashtra, India’s hardest-hit state, was concerned about such an approach, saying that approval was hasty and not backed by science.
“In a hurry to be populist, the government () is making decisions that may not be in the best interests of the common man,” Kalantri said.
Against the backdrop of the rising global death toll from Covid-19 – more than 2 million Friday – the clock is ticking to vaccinate as many people as possible. But the campaign was uneven.
In wealthy countries, including the United States, Britain, Israel, Canada and Germany, millions of citizens have already received some measure of protection with at least one dose of vaccine, developed at revolutionary speed and quickly approved for use.
But elsewhere, immunization drives have barely taken off. Many experts predict another year of loss and deprivation in places like Iran, India, Mexico and Brazil, which together account for about a quarter of the world’s deaths.
India ranks second to the US with 10.5 million confirmed cases, and third in deaths, after the US and Brazil, with 152,000.
According to the University of Oxford, more than 35 million doses of different Covid-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide.
While most of the COVID-19 vaccine doses have already been picked up by rich countries, Covax, a UN-backed project to deliver shots to developing countries, is short of vaccine, money and logistical assistance.
As a result, the World Health Organization chief scientist warned that it is highly unlikely that herd immunity – which would require at least 70% of the world to be vaccinated – will be achieved this year. As the disaster has shown, it is not enough to extinguish the virus in a few places.
“Even if it happens in a few pockets, in a few countries, it won’t protect people all over the world,” said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan this week.