WITH two Covid-19 vaccines approved, India is set to begin its mass vaccination programme in the “near future”, according to the head of the expert group on the country’s Covid-19 vaccine strategy. The government has told companies manufacturing the two vaccines — Covishield and Covaxin — to prepare to ship “a significant amount” to over 30 vaccination hubs across the country.
According to the government’s Covid-19 vaccines operational guidelines, around 30 crore of the population will be vaccinated on priority in the first phase. This includes healthcare and frontline workers as well as people with co-morbidities and those aged 50 years and above. Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan has said the government plans to complete this phase by August 2021, and that the first shots may be given sometime in January.
“The vaccination programme can be undertaken in the near future. The government will put out the exact schedule very soon, of where and how we are mobilising the vaccines,” Dr V K Paul, NITI Aayog Member, Health, and chair of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19, told The Indian Express on Sunday. This shouldn’t take time given that the dry run is over, he said.
The 30 vaccination hubs are located across the country, such as in Lucknow, Panchkula, Chennai and Delhi. Once the companies send the vaccines to these hubs, state governments are expected to mobilise the doses to the vaccination points. In the first tranche, the vaccination points will be healthcare facilities where public and private health professionals work.
The details of how many doses will be moved in the first part of this phase of the mass vaccination exercise are “being worked out now” with the companies, Dr Paul said.“We are telling the companies to be ready to ship a significant amount of dosages and will tell them where specifically to send them.”
While it is unclear how many doses of Covaxin have been readied by Bharat Biotech, Serum Institute of India (SII) CEO Adar Poonawalla said Sunday that Covishield would be ready to roll out “in the coming weeks”. As of January, around 70 million doses of Covishield had been stockpiled, The Indian Express has learnt.
By February, the SII plans to ramp up its monthly output capacity to 100 million doses from around 50-60 million currently, Poonawalla had earlier said.
The government will also be working out how it wants to divide the procurement of Covishield and Covaxin. “Let’s see how it works out. This part will now unfold,” Dr Paul said.
Queries to Bharat Biotech and SII about their capacity, procurements of their vaccines and their distribution strategy remained unanswered by press time Sunday.
The first phase of the vaccination will start with around 70 lakh healthcare workers registered across the country. Overall, the infrastructure is ready to vaccinate around one crore healthcare workers, Dr Paul said. “This will be the first wave of the first phase, which will begin with healthcare workers because it is easier to conduct the vaccinations for them as they are already in healthcare facilities.”
About the time frame, he said, “It is difficult to say exactly, but the aim is to do it as fast as possible. I hope it will be done in a matter of two-three months. Remember, we have to administer two doses of vaccine to each person… Then, it will build up.”
The next to receive vaccines are likely to be frontline workers and then people aged 50 years and above. “It will start stage-wise but will not be in a series — we will not finish the last healthcare worker’s vaccination before starting with frontline workers. Soon, it will become simultaneous,” Dr Paul said.
“When we go to the field for the 26 crore people above the 50-year age group, that is the time when this idea of the election programme-aligned, booth-based approach will be taken. But, for now, we will be going through the healthcare facilities,” he said.
“This will also help us understand the nuances and we will be much more ready (to vaccinate a larger group). But this is going to unfold fairly rapidly in a very energetic way,” he told The Indian Express.
While countries like the UK have decided to attempt giving as many people the first dose before moving to the second, whether India will follow suit in its vaccination strategy will depend on the dosing patterns recommended by the Subject Expert Committee, Dr Paul said.