India on Saturday became the third country in the world after the United States and China to have administered 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine, even as the country's inoculation drive races to keep pace with an unprecedented nationwide second wave of Covid-19 infections.
Until Saturday night, 101.3 million shots had been administered across the country to 88.6 million people, according to data released by the Union health ministry. A total of 76 million people have received one shot, while 12.6 million have been administered both shots of the vaccine.
India is the fastest to 100 million vaccinations – it took the country 85 days to reach the milestone (vaccinations started on January 16). The US took 89 days to complete this feat, while China did so in 103 days, according to data maintained by Our World in Data.
On Saturday, India added 152,449 new Covid-19 cases to its tally, taking its overall caseload to 13.35 million. This was the fifth day in row and the sixth time in the last week that India has broken all previous records for new Covid-19 infections.
"The achievement [of administering 100 million doses] is … a testimony of the 'whole of society' approach where individuals turned a deaf ear to rumours and propaganda of vested interests, shunned their vaccine hesitancy and strengthened the hand of the administration in curbing Covid-19," the Union health ministry said in a statement on Saturday night.
"The extension of vaccine coverage to those above 45 years along with the recent provisions for them to get vaccinated at their workplaces (government and private) form a series of proactive, collaborative and coordinated steps taken by the Centre and the state governments for safety and prevention of precious lives from the infectious Covid disease," it added.
Despite this achievement, India's path to vaccinating a majority of its population – the second largest in the world – is arduous and has not been without complications and hiccups.
State governments and experts across the country have urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to open up the inoculation programme for all age groups in order to increase the pace of the drive, while several administrations have complained about shortage of vaccines over the past week, though this seems to be also a function of last mile issues within states. On Saturday, government data accessed by HT showed that a little under 40 million doses of the vaccine are either in stock with states or in the pipeline.
Vaccination numbers gain even more significance right now because India is in the grip of a mammoth surge of infections under a second Covid-19 wave that is breaking all previous records.
In a meeting of the PM with all chief ministers earlier this week, some the state leaders raised the issue of shortage of vaccines, but the Union health ministry pointed out that vaccines are not given for an extended period such as a month but for a maximum of 7-8 days. The states were also told that there is no shortage and replenishments will arrive every three or four days.
Cases in the second wave have long surpassed the first wave peak both nationally, as well as in at least seven regions – Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh – with several others such as Delhi, Jharkhand and Goa appear set to surpass their previous peaks as well, according to HT's dashboard.
Experts, however, said there was still a long way to go.
Dr Jacob John, former head of the department of virology at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, said, "We have been able to vaccinate less than 10% of the population in two-and-a-half months; so clearly we are not vaccinating enough. The need of the hour is for the government to assure people that the vaccine is safe because there is a lot of hesitancy." He added that no matter how many people we immunise at the moment, it will not help in controlling the surge. "Controlling the spread of the infection was never our goal. Vaccinating those above the age of 60 and those with comorbidity, followed by people who are 45 years or older is aimed at reducing the number of deaths. If we had to control the spread of the infection, we would have to look at the people involved in the chain of transmission and vaccinate them. If we start doing that even today, it will be at least five weeks before there is any impact," he said.
Dr Jugal Kishore, head of the department of community medicine at Safdarjung Hospital, said, "It is good that the vaccination drive is picking up pace, however, now there are places where the vaccines are not available. We don't know how long the supply shortage will last. If we scale up the number of centres and timings without the doses we will be wasting our manpower that is already strained. We have undertaken a gigantic task, but if the government can't deliver, it is better to open up to the private sector."