Covid-19 vaccine drive faces uphill battle against fresh wave
New Delhi: While the rate of vaccination has picked up through the month of March, when India’s drive was expanded to include those most vulnerable to Covid-19, the country’s inoculation campaign still faces an uphill battle as it races against the surge of new infections in the second wave, shows data. The main reason for the pace would appear to be a reluctance among people to be vaccinated (or vaccine hesitancy), something the government is trying to address by expanding the eligibility criteria.
The total number of doses administered across the country crossed 50 million on Tuesday night, with 42.7 million people having received at least one dose of the vaccine in the country till Tuesday night. A total of 8.1 million people, meanwhile, have received both doses, according to data from the Union health ministry. In over two months since the start of the vaccination drive on January 16, India has administered only around 8.5% of its target of 600 million doses (to cover 300 million people) by the end of July.
This means India has just over four months to achieve the remaining 91.5%. To cover this, the vaccination drive needs to be further expanded to deliver 4.2 million shots every day for the remaining 130 days. To be sure, the government has repeatedly spoken of administering 5 million doses a day. The highest it has achieved on a single day so far is 3.4 million on March 22.
Over the past month, an alarmingly strong second wave of infections has raged across India despite the roll-out of vaccines. The seven-day average of daily cases has risen to 39,526 infections a day in the past week from a low of 10,988 on February 11 – an increase of 260% in just over a month.
To be sure, the pace of vaccination has also picked up considerably since as the inoculation drive moved into its second phase from March 1. More than half (52%) of all doses administered throughout India’s vaccination drive have come in just the previous two weeks.
On Tuesday, the government also announced a further expansion of the eligibility criteria -- all people above 45 years of age will be made eligible to get Covid-19 vaccine from April 1. The move is likely to further boost daily vaccination numbers. With the expansion announced on Tuesday, more than a quarter (25.3%) of the country’s projected population (as on March 1, 2021) is now eligible for the vaccine, according estimates by the Technical Group on Population Projections under the National Commission on Population.
Removing even more barriers on eligibility criteria would only go on to improve the coverage of the vaccination drive and further control cases, experts said.
Till Tuesday, the world’s worst-hit nation, the United States has vaccinated a quarter of its population – 82.8 million people out of a population of 330 million. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has vaccinated 41% of its population. Both countries were completely overwhelmed with cases at the start of 2021, are now defying a global trend of new waves. In the US, average daily cases have dropped from over 250,000 in January to around 55,000 in the last week; in the UK, this has dropped from nearly 60,000 new infections a day in January to 5000 in the last week. At the opposite end of this spectrum is Brazil where a slow inoculation drive has failed to arrest rising cases. The South American nation, which has inoculated only 5% of its population till Tuesday, is now the world’s largest Covid hot spot and is reporting a record 75,000 new cases every day.
Experts said it’s very clear that the mass vaccination has helped the US and UK.
“The short answer (to whether vaccines have helped prevent new waves in the UK and US) is a resounding ‘yes’. Israel is another country that has shifted its curve using vaccines. Of course, the devil is always in the details. India is a big and complex country, but has the advantage of being home to a robust vaccine industry. We can also do this provided three factors: first, there is sufficient vaccine supply coming through; second, there are sufficient delivery points (this can be expanded because the government has the capacity); and third, there is no vaccine hesitancy,” said Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University.
Under the drive’s first phase in India, only health care workers and frontline workers were vaccinated till the end of February. Phase two of the drive included people over 60 years of age and those aged 45 and above with specified co-morbid conditions.
Till Tuesday night, 21.8 million people who are above the age of 60 years received a shot each, 8.4 million frontline workers received at least one shot, as did 7.9 million health care workers, and 4.7 million people between 45 and 60 years with comorbidities. Meanwhile, 3.1 million frontline workers and 5 million health care workers received second doses.
The Union government is now stressing on the need to speed up the vaccination drive, especially in the light of the second wave.
“While the vaccination drive is proceeding smoothly, the pace is uneven across different states and UTs; and, the slow pace of vaccination in some states/UTs is a matter of concern. Vaccination… in the present scenario is critical to break the chain of transmission. Therefore, all state/UT governments should rapidly step up the pace of vaccination, to cover all priority groups in an expeditious manner,” the Union ministry of health affairs said in a statement on Tuesday.
Dr Gauri Agarwal, founder, Genestrings Diagnostics, said, “With the announcement of opening Covid-19 vaccines for all people above the age of 45, India has widened the safety net for many more people. Many Indians above 45 have various degrees of lifestyle diseases that makes them susceptible to contracting the infection. This move will play a key role in increasing the number of inoculated people significantly and rapidly, which is the need of the hour in view of the rising cases in many parts of the country.”
(With inputs from Rhythma Kaul)