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India begins mega-rollout of Covid vaccine

No evidence current vaccines will fail against virus variants: Indian government

India begins one of the world’s biggest coronavirus vaccine programmes on Saturday.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will launch the programme virtually in New Delhi — with around 300,000 people receiving the first of two doses on day one.

The world’s second-most populous nation hopes to inoculate around 300 million of its 1.3 billion people by July.

On the first day, around 100 people will be voluntarily vaccinated in each of the 3,006 centres in the country, the government said this week, calling it the start of the biggest such campaign in the world.

“This will be the world’s largest vaccination programme covering the entire length and breadth of the country,” Modi’s office said in a statement this week.

Health workers, people over 50 and those deemed at high-risk are prioritised to receive one of two approved vaccines, although one has yet to complete clinical trials.

Authorities say they are drawing on their experience with elections and child immunisation programmes for polio and tuberculosis in rolling out the vaccine.

About 150,000 staff in 700 districts have been specially trained, and India has held several national dry runs involving mock transportation of vaccines.

Both vaccines approved so far need to be kept refrigerated at all times, and others being developed will need to be stored at ultra-low temperatures too.

To account for this, India has readied tens of thousands of refrigeration tools — including 45,000 ice-lined refrigerators, 41,000 deep freezers and 300 solar refrigerators.

There are also concerns about plans to manage the entire process digitally via India’s own app, CoWIN — of which there are already several fake versions.

More than 150,000 Indians have died from Covid-19 and the economy is one of the worst-hit worldwide, with millions losing their livelihoods.

New infection rates have fallen sharply in recent months but experts are concerned a new wave might hit, fuelled by a string of recent mass religious festivals.

And as in other countries, there is scepticism about the vaccine, fuelled by a torrent of hoaxes and rumours online about the virus.

Modi, 70, has said politicians will not be considered frontline workers.

On Saturday, he is also expected to formally inaugurate the government’s online platform Co-WIN that will provide information on vaccine stocks, storage temperature and keep track of beneficiaries.

The government has already bought 11 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVISHIELD shot, produced by the Serum Institute of India, and 5.5 million of Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN.

COVISHIELD is 72% effective, according to the Indian drug regulator, while Bharat Biotech says COVAXIN’s last-stage trial results are expected by March.

(with inputs from agencies)

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