Does India need to give its entire population the Covid-19 vaccine?

Give it a shot?
Give it a shot?
Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave
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Now that the UK will begin rolling out Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine, Indians are wondering about their chances of getting one, too. But with that fervent hope comes the question: do all Indians even need the coronavirus vaccine?

At the moment, the Indian government is of the opinion that vaccination against the deadly pandemic may be needed only to the extent of “breaking the chain.” If we’re able to vaccinate a critical mass of people and break virus transmission, then we may not have to vaccinate the entire population,” Balram Bhargava, director general of India’s nodal medical body Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), said on Dec. 1.

This statement was in response to a question about how long it would take to immunise all of India’s population of over 1.3 billion people for Covid-19, during a health ministry press conference. According to Rajesh Bhushan, the health ministry’s secretary, the government had never spoken about inoculating everyone in India.

Thus far, India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan has said that 300 million Indians—about 22% of the population—will be given the vaccine by August or September 2021, according to an interview in Outlook magazine. India’s first priority, much like other parts of the world, will be to immunise its frontline and healthcare workers.

While breaking the chain is the priority for the immunisation programme at the moment, the element of herd immunity to Covid-19 may also play a role in how many Indians eventually need to be vaccinated. “We may reach a stage down the line where we may have a good amount of immunity and the people feel there is now good immunity, the utility of the vaccine is not there,” Dr Randeep Guleria, director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, told the Indo-Asian News Service in an interview. “And, if the virus doesn’t mutate or does not cause changes that may need you to again vaccinate yourself, because you may get re-infection, then there will be less utilisation of the vaccine down the line,” he added.

For now, though, most Indians are sceptical about getting the Covid-19 vaccine, at least during the early stages.

A survey conducted by community engagement platform LocalCircles in October found that 61% Indians were hesitant to take the vaccine, whenever it was available. One likely cause of this hesitation is the fact that the Covid-19 vaccines are being developed at “warp speed” across the world, a departure from the norm where it could take years to find the right vaccine without adverse side-effects.