Vaccinating India’s 1.3 billion population – A lot left to be done

Dr Alok Roy, Chairman of Medica Group Hospitals, speaks on how a private-public partnership is crucial in India’s ambitious vaccination drive

In India’s vaccination race, private hospitals have been joining hands with the public sector, to reach the country’s target of vaccinating 250 million people by July 2021.

“The challenge of producing, distributing, and administering the vaccine to the population in the shortest possible time is formidable, more so for a country like India given our population, geographical spread between the states,” said Dr Alok Roy, Chairman of Medica Group of Hospitals, the largest private hospital chain in eastern India. “There is a huge scope for augmenting inoculation capacity through greater involvement of private sector.”

The public-private partnership has seen India administering an average of 1.77 million vaccine doses daily, since the beginning of its inoculation drive in January. As of mid-April, India ranks third highest in the world in terms of the total number of vaccine doses administered, with a total of over 120 million doses.

The vaccination drive in India so far

India’s vaccination drive first started in mid-January for healthcare and frontline workers. It was then opened to all over 60 years old, and those above 45 with certain comorbidities on 1 March; and subsequently to all above 45 starting April. The vaccines used thus far were Covishield, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India; and Covaxin, the home-grown vaccine by Bharat Biotech.

Dr Roy stressed that there is an urgent need for vaccination for all age groups now. “We had been advocating the need to open vaccinations for all age groups, to help subside the spread of infection during the second wave,” he said. “This is affecting the youth in large numbers since they are venturing out for livelihood and not taking adequate protection.”

Up till 12 April, Medica Group of Hospitals has vaccinated over 40,000 people. The group marked an important milestone by conducting the highest number of vaccinations in March amongst the private hospitals. Comprehensive preparations had to be made by the hospitals before starting as a vaccine provider. “The smooth rollout of the vaccination programme at Medica Hospitals is the culmination of months of preparation that included readying the infrastructure, training programmes for staff, dry runs, and coordination with the Government to procure the vials of vaccines on time,” said Dr Roy.

Vaccinations are now running at full speed on-site. Medica’s group of hospitals now vaccinate people 24 x 7 round the clock, and accept both appointments made online, as well as walk-ins for those with no access to the Internet, to ensure that no one is left behind.

A lot more left to be done

As the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer, India may have better access to vaccines than many other parts of the developing world. As of 21 April, more than 120 million people had been vaccinated (with at least one dose) in India. While this has been no easy feat, Dr Roy is mindful that “a lot is left to be done”.

The proportion of people vaccinated in India currently sits at around 9.2 per 100 people, as compared to United States’ figure of 63 per 100 people. One challenge in ramping up the vaccination efforts lies in logistics. “Given the bottlenecks with the cold chain infrastructure in India, it will be a task to reach the last mile population. Thus, it requires scalability and quick response from the manufacturing companies,” said Dr Roy. The Indian government is currently working with the manufacturers on scaling up and improving cold chain management of the vaccines.

India’s COVID-19 situation thus far serves as a case in point – while vaccinations continue in full swing, cases have risen in recent days, with a second wave of infection emerging. On 15 April, India reported a daily record 200,00 new cases. This has shown that even while vaccinations are happening, people still need to abide by relevant safety management measures, such as social distancing and wearing of masks.

Amidst the surge, Indian authorities announced fast-track emergency approvals for vaccines authorised by Western countries and Japan. On 13 April, Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine received emergency use approval, making it the third vaccine approved for use in India. These moves are set to further speed up the pace of vaccination.

For Dr Roy, the vaccination programme is critical to bringing the pandemic to an end, and he expressed that Medica is committed to working with the authorities to bring the situation under control. “At Medica Hospitals, we are fully geared up to administer COVID vaccinations to support the Government in achieving its target of administering 500 million vaccines by July 2021,” he noted. “A robust vaccination programme is the need of the hour, and we are glad for this opportunity to support and boost the Government’s efforts in ensuring that no eligible person is left out of the vaccine programme.”

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