NEW DELHI: India started inoculating health workers on Saturday in what is likely the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccination campaign, joining the ranks of wealthier nations where the effort is already well underway.

India is home to the world’s largest vaccine makers and has one of the biggest immunisation programmes. But there is no playbook for the enormity of the current challenge.

Indian authorities hope to give shots to 300 million people, roughly the population of the US and several times more than its existing programme that targets 26 million infants. The recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other frontline workers, to be followed by 270 million people who are either over 50 years old or have illnesses that make them vulnerable to Covid-19.

For workers who have pulled India’s battered healthcare system through the pandemic, the shots offered confidence that life can start returning to normal. Many burst with pride.

I am excited that I am among the first to get the vaccine, Gita Devi, a nurse, said as she lifted her left sleeve to receive the shot.

I am happy to get an India-made vaccine and that we do not have to depend on others for it, said Devi, who has treated patients throughout the pandemic in a hospital in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state in India’s heartland.

The first dose was administered to a sanitation worker at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital, New Delhi, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted the campaign with a nationally televised speech.

We are launching the world’s biggest vaccination drive and it shows the world our capability, Modi said. He implored citizens to keep their guard up and not to believe any rumours about the safety of the vaccines.

It was not clear whether Modi, 70, had received the vaccine himself like other world leaders to try to demonstrate the shots safety. His government has said politicians will not be considered priority groups in the first phase of the rollout.

Health officials haven’t specified what percentage of India’s nearly 1.4 billion people will be targeted by the campaign. But experts say it will almost certainly be the largest such drive globally.

The sheer scale has its obstacles and some early snags were identified. For instance, there were delays in uploading the details of healthcare workers receiving the shots to a digital platform that India is using to track vaccines, the Health Ministry said.

Shots were given to at least 165,714 people on Saturday, Dr Manohar Agnani, a Health Ministry official, said at an evening briefing. The ministry had said that it was aiming to vaccinate 100 people in each of the 3,006 centres across the country.

News cameras captured the injections across hundreds of hospitals, underscoring the pent-up hopes that vaccination was the first step in getting past the pandemic that has devastated the lives of so many Indians and bruised the country’s economy.

India on Jan 4 approved emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and UK-based drugmaker AstraZeneca, and another by Indian company Bharat Biotech. Cargo planes flew 16.5 million shots to different Indian cities last week.

But doubts over the effectiveness of the homegrown vaccine is creating hurdles for the ambitious plan.

Health experts worry that the regulatory shortcut taken to approve the Bharat Biotech vaccine without waiting for concrete data that would show its efficacy in preventing illness from the coronavirus could amplify vaccine hesitancy. At least one state health minister has opposed its use.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2021

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