India on Thursday reached the milestone of one billion Covid vaccines in a little over nine months, commemorating the occasion by unfurling the national flag at the Red Fort and lighting up around 100 heritage monuments in the country in saffron, white, and green.
India has administered the second-highest number of doses in the world, next only to China, which is said to have given over 2.2 billion doses to its citizens.
“Today — October 21 — has been registered in history. The country has the protective shield of 100 crore doses to protect us from a once in a century pandemic,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet.
Nearly 31 per cent of the adult population is now reportedly fully vaccinated while 75 per cent has received their first dose.
Tweeting with the hashtag vaccine century, Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said: “Congratulations India! We have achieved a landmark milestone of 100 Crore COVID-19 vaccination doses. Salute to our COVID Warriors, our Healthcare and Frontline Workers who have worked day and night to help us achieve it.”
The average daily vaccination doses delivered, on a seven-day moving average basis, have slowed from 8.4 million daily at the end of August to around 5 million. The challenge is to ensure everyone takes his or her second dose in time.
Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said: “Completion of second dose for those people whose second dose is due is the next challenge.”
Challenges in vaccine supply seem to have eased. Adar Poonawalla, chief executive officer of Serum Institute of India, which provided more than 90 per cent of the overall doses (see chart 1) in the country, said the country had three to four weeks’ buffer stock.
“The Indian vaccine manufacturers together are making slightly more than the current demand. The Indian vaccine manufacturing capacity today is more than what we are consuming,” he added.
Airline IndiGo has been the largest transporter of Covid vaccines in the country, transporting 1,727 tonnes on 4,505 flights. That accounts for almost 68 per cent of the 1 billion vaccine doses administered so far.
Second-dose vaccinations are playing a more important role, accounting for 29.3 per cent of the total as India hit 1 billion. This is against 21.9 per cent of the total when India hit the 500-million mark in August (see chart 2).
A large gap between two doses can play a role in increasing the pace.
How well they are able to scale up may determine whether India will be able to move up the ranks of the most populous nations in terms of vaccine delivery. Among the five most populous countries for which the data is available, India is lagging in terms of the share of population fully vaccinated (see chart 3).
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Some states distributed freebies to fully vaccinated people. In Gujarat, free medical kits and ropeway rides were given to those who got both doses. The Union health ministry released a two-minute film on India’s vaccination journey, along with an anthem by Kailash Kher. Sand art by Sudarshan Patnaik in Odisha feted the occasion.
Announcements were made at railway stations, praising India’s “corona warriors, sanitation workers, paramedics, vaccination staff for landmark achievement” and “the largest and fastest vaccination drive in the world”.
Krishna Ella, chairman and managing director, Bharat Biotech, felt the political commitment to vaccinate 1 billion doses was not easy to come by.
“If we look at the US and Europe put together, it’s only 900 million vaccine doses. Whereas India has crossed both US and Europe and Australia put together,” he said.
Ella was concerned about the excess capacity that would not be utilised.
“There will be some demand for flu shots,” he said. Vaccination would continue to be children-driven in the future, he said.
For many states, the next big task is to fight vaccine hesitancy.
In Tamil Nadu, around 26 per cent of the eligible people have taken their second dose against the countrywide average of 29 per cent. The state’s health department has said hesitancy and the belief that one dose is enough have kept the numbers low.
West Bengal, on the other hand, has said the supply of vaccine has improved. “But it’s ad hoc. If we know how much we are going to get on a weekly basis, then the distribution in different districts can be planned accordingly,” said Ajoy Chakraborty, director, health services, West Bengal.
Around 71 per cent of the eligible population in West Bengal have been administered the first dose and 27 per cent both the doses.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath felicitated health workers and vaccine beneficiaries in Lucknow, stressing there was no shortage of vaccines in the state.
While congratulating India on the feat, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director, WHO (South-East Asia), said: “India’s progress must be viewed in the context of the country’s commendable commitment and efforts to ensure that these life-saving vaccines are accessible globally.”
Inputs from Ishita Ayan Dutt, Shine Jacob, Vinay Umarji and Virender Singh Rawat