India scripts history with one billion vaccine doses administered

India could have probably reached this grand milestone earlier if precious time was not wasted by asking States to procure vaccines directly from the two manufacturers at a higher cost to vaccinate the 18-44 age group.

India scripted history on October 21 when the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered across the country crossed the one-billion mark. The landmark achievement was accomplished in nine months after the vaccination programme was rolled out on January 16.

What makes the accomplishment even more outstanding is the fact that the vaccination programme had targeted adults. Unlike the well-established universal immunisation programme which administers a basket of vaccines to infants and young children, India has never undertaken any massive universal vaccination programme aimed at adults both in urban and rural areas. That this exercise involving thousands of health-care workers and others was carried out even while the country was experiencing a huge number of daily cases in April and May during the second wave makes it even more remarkable.

Pharma companies’ initiative

Without a doubt, this achievement became possible only because the two vaccine manufacturers — Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech — were able to rise to the occasion and ensure that vaccine availability was uninterrupted even if supply was limited in the beginning. If Serum Institute had the foresight to begin manufacturing vaccines in advance, Bharat Biotech’s capability to quickly develop an indigenous vaccine together with ICMR ensured that India did not have to endlessly wait for vaccine supplies from other countries.

If there was hesitancy initially even among health-care workers, who were the first to become eligible to receive the vaccines, the deadly second wave led to a huge leap in vaccine uptake; vaccination was opened up to all priority groups and to everyone above 18 years before the second wave peaked in early May.

India could have probably reached this grand milestone earlier if precious time was not wasted by asking States to procure vaccines directly from the two manufacturers at a higher cost to vaccinate the 18-44 age group.

While basking in glory, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger goal of vaccinating all eligible adults by year-end. Even as vaccine supply is increasing, the current pace of the vaccination drive does not inspire confidence and has to be speeded up to meet the objective.

China way ahead of India

If over 75% of the eligible adults have already been vaccinated with one dose, the proportion of adults who are fully vaccinated is only 31%. Since vaccination with two doses is necessary to increase the protection level, all efforts should be directed at increasing the pace of vaccination with a second dose. China has already administered over 2.2 billion doses and fully vaccinated over 75% of the eligible population even by mid-September.

Vaccine exports suspended for six months

Crossing the one-billion mark became possible as India stopped export of vaccines, thus jeopardising the vaccination programmes of most low- and middle-income countries. On October 14, nearly six months after halting exports, India finally supplied vaccines to four countries; further supplies will depend on production and demand.

It is imperative that vaccine production is quickly ramped up to meet both internal and international demand. Any more delay in meeting international obligations will greatly hurt India’s credibility as a reliable vaccine supplier to the global South.

Published in The Hindu on October 22, 2021