Nearly 68.3% of all adults older than 18 years have received at least 1 dose and nearly 1 in 4 Indians (24.8%) are fully vaccinated.
On 29 September, India’s vaccination program reached a milestone: a quarter of the eligible adult population has now been fully vaccinated and more than two-thirds have received at least one dose.
In May earlier this year with the Delta variant wreaking havoc, hospitals running out of beds, oxygen supplies dwindling and dead bodies piling up in front of crematoriums, India was in the throes of an extraordinary existential crises. The public was in a state of panic and naysayers ruled the roost, screaming hysterically and indulging in wild ranting. The Central government was at the receiving end of a vicious vitriolic campaign that was part justified and part unsubstantiated and at times appeared to be more self-serving than altruistic in its intent.
Accusations of tardiness filled the air. Not placing orders for vaccines in a timely manner, not approving vaccines licenced abroad, lack of fiscal support for local manufacturers and a confused vaccination policy were at the heart of allegations levelled against the government.
After an initial period of hesitancy and flip-flops, the Central government swung into action, formulating a new vaccine policy in which the Centre would assume responsibility for procuring and distributing Covid-19 vaccines. Crucial to this new vaccine policy was an increase in supply of the vaccine and streamlining the vaccination process.
The government incentivized domestic vaccine companies to increase their capacity, urged them to open new production plants and imported vaccines from abroad. Fast track approval was given to vaccines certified by regulatory agencies in the US, UK and Japan. And the vaccine was given free of cost via government channels.
The government’s efforts have paid off both in terms of supply and vaccination rates.
The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines recently announced that by October it would be able to supply the government with 220 million doses per month, which is nearly three times the amount (65 million) that it was producing in April. Similarly, Bharat Biotech, the other major manufacturer, has also increased its capacity, although it has fallen short of its expected target.
As per Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, India’s monthly domestic output is expected to reach 300 million in October, nearly 3-4 times of what it was in April.
This increased capacity has prompted the government to abandon plans to buy additional Covid-19 shots from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna and restart its “Vaccine Maitri” program as a part of its commitment to COVAX, a worldwide initiative to provide vaccines to poorer countries.
India’s vaccination drive is no longer floundering or stumbling as it was depicted in national and international publications earlier this year. Today, barely 3 months after the new vaccine policy came into being, India has the distinction of administering the largest number of Covid-19 vaccines doses to date in the world. (I am not including China in this comparison as its figures are unreliable. China claims to have administered 2.1 billion doses.) As of 28 September, India had administered an impressive 873 million vaccine doses; combined Europe’s total stands at 793 million with the United States at 391 million.
With 643 million Indians having received at least one dose so far, India also leads the world in this category.
In terms of the percentage of the population covered India appears to lag behind. Approximately 47% of all Indians have received at least one dose and 17% have been fully vaccinated. The corresponding figures for the United States are 64% (at least one dose) and 55% fully vaccinated. The United Kingdom has fully vaccinated 66% of its citizens, with 71% having received at least one dose.
However, when we do an intelligent analysis by examining the eligible adult population greater than 18 years (940 million as per the last census) India’s outcome is impressive and acceptable: 68.3% of all adults older than 18 years have received at least 1 dose and nearly 1 in 4 Indians (24.8%) are fully vaccinated.
This is a phenomenal achievement when we factor in India’s humungous population, its varied geographic terrain that hampers accessibility, its diverse ethnicity and its relatively low literacy rates compared to the West. To match India’s figures with small homogenous nations like the UK, which has a population 1/20th that of India is unfair and akin to comparing apples to oranges.
Another feather in India’s vaccination campaign is the approval of the first DNA vaccine worldwide. ZyCov-D developed by the Indian pharmaceutical company Zydus Cadila has an efficacy rate of 67%. Despite its relatively lower efficacy rate, the advantage of DNA vaccines is that they are easy to produce and store, making them attractive for countries like India. RNA vaccines usually require very low temperatures for storage.
India has been systematically ramping up its rate of vaccination since May. From a daily 4.3 million doses in July, India has averaged 8 million vaccinations per day in September for a total of 225 million till 28 September. There were days in September when the daily total exceeded 10 million.
If India is able to sustain this rate, its goal of vaccinating all its adult population by the end of the year may not seem as improbable as it once seemed. Even if we overshoot this deadline by a couple of months it would still be a notable feat worthy of commendation: a success story that we should be proud of.
While it would be premature to declare victory at this stage (the virus has a nasty habit of unexpectedly coming back with a vengeance) it is important to pause and give credit to this government for a job well done so far. It would be nice if the usual suspects who hurled brickbats at the government for its supposed failure earlier on have the grace to acknowledge its good work.