Bengaluru: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off India’s COVID-19 vaccination drive on January 16, 2021, he said the first phase would cover the country’s frontline and healthcare workers by July.
But on June 10, the Union health ministry admitted that while 82% of healthcare workers had received at least one dose, only 56% had received both doses. Similarly, 85% of frontline workers had received at least one dose and 47% had received both doses.
New Indian Express quoted Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan saying the shortfall was a “serious concern”, and that state governments should fully vaccinate this group of workers asap.
The authors of a study of nearly 9,000 healthcare workers at Christian Medical College, Vellore, said some of them couldn’t get the second doses “initially due to vaccine shortage and subsequently, despite vaccine availability, due to changes in guidelines on the interval between doses.”
After India’s vaccination drive began in earnest, the country began reporting supply issues by March. At the same time, the government expanded eligibility for vaccination to the 45+ age group in April and to the 18-44 years group from May 1.
Both the Indian government and the vaccine-makers had overestimated the manufacturing capacity. The government also undertook ‘vaccine diplomacy’, exporting 58 million doses to 70 countries by mid-March and 66 million doses to 94 countries by late April.
While local manufacturers couldn’t keep pace with the rate of vaccination, the supply of the one other vaccine in India’s drive – Sputnik V from Russia – faltered as well.
The first two or three months of the vaccination drive were also marked by vaccine hesitancy, directed especially at Covaxin, which India’s drug regulator had approved without data from its phase 3 clinical trials.
There were also issues with the vaccine registration system and a shifting vaccination policy. On the former: the CoWIN portal has been criticised because it makes the registration process much harder for people who are not technologically savvy.
On the latter: between late April and early June, the Modi government adopted a procurement policy in which the Centre would buy Covaxin and Covishield doses at lower rates from vaccine-makers, while state governments and private hospitals could negotiate separately for their requirements.
The underlying moral and ethical issues drew the Supreme Court’s ire, as well as that of numerous politicians and independent experts. The government subsequently restored its original policy of centralised negotiation and procurement.
But taken together, these issues have ensured not even a fifth of the country has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. At present, 14% of Indians have received at least one dose and only 3.3% have received both doses.
Healthcare workers are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 because of their exposure to patients with the disease. The Indian Medical Association said on June 1 that 1,300 healthcare workers have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, almost 600 during India’s second wave.