India administers 400mn coronavirus vaccine shots

India on Saturday crossed 400-million mark in the number of coronavirus vaccine doses administered across the country so far – a key milestone in the country’s inoculation drive, making it the highest number of shots given among any nation in the world with the exception of China.

Until Saturday night, 404.5 million shots had been administered across the country to 318.4 million people, according to data released by the Union health ministry. This translates into a little over one-third of India’s eligible population (currently only people above the age of 18 years qualify for shots) having received at least one dose of the vaccine – 25.2% of India’s adults are partially vaccinated, and 8.7% have received both doses.

But despite this milestone, India has the unique and monumental task of inoculating the world’s second largest population with nearly two-thirds of the eligible population yet to receive a single jab. The country’s vaccination drive, meanwhile, faces challenges such as constraints regarding supplies and production, and a heavily fluctuating pace of shot administration.

“India takes another leap in the fight against #COVID19 by administering more than 40 crore vaccine doses so far under the world’s #LargestVaccineDrive!” said the ministry of health in a tweet on Saturday.

Also on Saturday, two panchayats in Jammu and Kashmir completed 100% vaccination for everyone above the age of 18 years, Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya said. They join Ladakh, which achieved the feat earlier this month, as regions that have given single shots to their entire eligible populations. “I want to congratulate the ASHA [workers] and the people of the two panchayats in Jammu and Kashmir’s Rajauri district for 100% vaccination. The way they have taken the vaccination drive to the most inaccessible places is admirable,” the minister said.

India’s vaccination drive, which kicked off on January 16, has seen huge fluctuations so far. The drive picked up pace in April after it was opened up for everyone over the age of 45 years, but numbers remained low through May despite vaccinations being thrown open to everyone over the age of 18. This forced the central government to announce a change in procurement strategy, where the Centre purchased 75% of all vaccine doses and gave it to states for free starting June 21.

As the latest vaccine policy kicked off, the vaccination rate briefly soared to its highest ever, but has again slowed down over the past few weeks.

In the past week, India has averaged administration of around 4.1 million shots a day – a drop of over 36% of the peak levels seen in the third week of June. State governments too have said lately that they are facing severe scarcity of doses, and that some of them have had to close down some vaccination centres due to patchy supply. On Wednesday, Mandaviya said that vaccine availability in July was increased from 120 million doses to 135 million. Till the evening of July 17, nearly 64 million doses had been administered in the month.

On Friday, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with the chief ministers of six states regarding the Covid-19 outbreak, the CMs of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu stressed on the need for increased vaccine supply. The PM assured them of all possible help in taking forward the Covid-19 vaccination drive.

These states were in addition to several regions such as Maharashtra, Delhi, West Bengal, Rajasthan, and Odisha, who have over the past week raised concerns over their diminishing vaccine supplies.

Earlier this week, Mandaviya had said that “misinformed” statements were being put out to “create panic” among people regarding vaccine supply. He added that states knew “well in advance” the time and volume of doses they were scheduled to get, so any supply shortage was the result of “mismanagement” at the state level.

Till Saturday morning, 416 million doses of vaccines have been sent to states, with another 1.8 million doses in the pipeline, according to the government data.

Experts, however, stressed that with less than 10% of the country’s adults fully vaccinated, it still leaves a massive task at hand for the government.

“Having fully vaccinated less than 10% of the eligible population is too small a fraction if our aim is to inoculate a big enough proportion of the country to reduce the transmission of the infection… We need to vaccinate at least 40-50% of the eligible population (to achieve that),” said Dr T Jacob John, former head of the department of virology at Christian Medical College-Vellore.

He said that in order to solve the issue of patchy vaccine supply and production, the government should have started stockpiling vaccines when they entered Phase 3 of trials. “Once vaccine candidates pass Phase 1 and 2 of trials, we know there’s a good chance they will get approved. The government should have started ordering doses then. Instead they waited till the drug regulator approved the vaccines and bought stockpiles that were created by the companies. The manufacturing capacity has been increased only in the last couple of months, the effect of which will only be seen August onwards,” he said.

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