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Express News Service
NEW DELHI: Despite the government announcing a new decentralized vaccination policy, a COVID-19 jab may not be available for all from May 1, as India stares at a major supply crisis.

Starting next month, all above 18 qualify for a shot against the coronavirus and while the Centre will pay for vaccination of those above 45 years at select facilities, people in the 18-44 age group will depend on the policy of their state for a free vaccine at a government hospital or can pay for it in private set-ups.

This expansion of the vaccination drive comes even though the stocks of the currently available two COVID-19 vaccines are limited, forcing the first prioritized groups to wait for their turns for long despite their willingness to take the jabs and there may not be any foreign supplies available for several weeks.

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So far, over 14.5 crore vaccine shots have been administered in the country but the rate of vaccination has not scaled up to an extent where nearly 35 crore people, aged 45 and above, can be covered till July-August as planned by the government earlier.

The Centre has not made public the details of its vaccine procurement from Serum Institute of India, the manufacturer of Covishield, and Bharat Biotech, developer of Covaxin, but states have long been complaining about vaccine shortage.

Anecdotal evidence from the ground too suggests that people above 45 — who are current beneficiaries of the vaccination project — are struggling to secure slots for their first or even second doses in many instances.

Authorities in the Union health ministry, however, said that the Centre has procured over 17 crore vaccine doses so far and is looking to procure 58 crore more doses by September—sufficient for 34 crore priority groups while states and private hospitals will have to arrange on their own for vaccination of the younger lot.

But the problems are far too many, leaving many deeply skeptical.

“Where is the vaccine for the youth? It is easy to make an announcement,” said public health expert Antony Kollanur.

He suggested that owing to the limited supply, it may be practical to open vaccination for 18-44 year age group only after completion of the second dose of health staff and frontline workers and completion of the first dose of all above 45 years.

His skepticism does not look far-fetched when one looks at the supply figures.

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SII, with a production capacity of 6 crore doses a month, and Bharat Biotech, with a production capacity of 1 crore vaccine doses a month, are far too stretched to meet the huge demand even though all efforts are on to raise their production capacity quickly.

Speaking to The New Indian Express, economist R Ramakumar had said that the country would need nearly 1880 million vaccine doses considering the 94 crore adult population.

It may be a humongous challenge, however, to procure those many doses even by the year end as the government did not have prior agreement with any foreign makers, even though it has now said that regulatory approvals to them will be fast-tracked in view of the raging pandemic.

Sputnik V, the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Russia, which got regulatory approval in India recently and has tied up with several Indian companies including Dr Reddy’s Laboratories for its local distribution and production, may only be available by May end.

There is no sign of any other COVID-19 vaccine arriving in India soon, though Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson have shown some interest in the country.

It is for this reason that the experts worry about possible confusion and frustration among beneficiaries after May 1.

“It would be better to phase out the drive in a way that supply and demand can be matched and also important for the platform and back-end server to work even with increased demand,” said health policy specialist Anant Bhan.

Some others meanwhile said that as a third wave of the pandemic may be expected in the winter, best use of the window of opportunity should be made. “India has the potential to rewrite the success story only if we increase the pace and widen the coverage in the quickest possible time,” said epidemiologist Giridhara R Babu.