NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India will increase the number of its COVID-19 vaccination sites by up to five times after administering nearly 9 million shots in a month, a government official said on Tuesday, amid concerns about the speed of coverage in the country.
Having reported the highest number of coronavirus infections after the United States, and with the world’s biggest vaccine-making capacity, India says it has been the fastest to reach many inoculation milestones.
However it is vaccinating only around 300,000 front-line workers a day, a total that will have to increase sharply to meet the government’s target of covering 300 million of its 1.35 billion people by August, experts say.
The ongoing vaccination of front-line workers such as nurses and doctors has taught India how to scale up the campaign, Vinod Kumar Paul, who heads a government panel on vaccine strategy, told a news conference.
“This learning will be of great use,” he said, hours after taking the second dose of a government-backed vaccine. “We are currently running 10,000-11,000 immunisation sessions. We will do four to five times of that when we start the next phase; wait for the pace to pick up.”
India will begin immunising the public from next month, starting with those over 50 or with medical conditions.
The country has covered 60% of its nearly 10 million healthcare workers since starting the drive on Jan. 16, though as many as 11 of its 36 states or federally controlled territories have not even reached the halfway mark.
“These are not very unsatisfactory figures,” Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said. “We agree that like in any other field, there is a scope for improvement.”
India is using a home-grown vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech and the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research, and another licensed from AstraZeneca and Oxford University. Other vaccines are in the queue, including Russia’s Sputnik V and products from Cadila Healthcare, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson.
India, which makes 60% of the world’s vaccines, has also exported COVID-19 shots to 24 countries as part of a diplomatic push.
Some Indians, however, wonder why the government is not expanding coverage at home when it has shipped 17 million doses – including around 6 million as gifts to partners such as Bangladesh and Nepal. For its own campaign, New Delhi has so far only ordered 31 million doses.
“I love my neighbours and friends, but should I love them at my expense (literally) and to my detriment?” Happymon Jacob, who teaches diplomacy at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said on Twitter.
India’s COVID-19 cases rose by 9,121 in the past 24 hours, taking the total to 10.93 million. Deaths rose by 81 to 155,813.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das, Neha Arora and Sachin Ravikumar; Editing by Giles Elgood)