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India walks a tightrope between vaccinating its own people and sending vaccines to the world

People queue to register their names to get a dose of COVISHIELD, a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, in Ahmedabad
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India has widened the net for its Covid-19 vaccination drive as the pandemic rages on.

As of yesterday (April 1), everyone over the age of 45 is eligible to receive the vaccine. Before this, only those above the age of 60 automatically qualified. Those aged between 45 and 59 had to produce documentation to prove they had comorbidities that made them more susceptible to the novel coronavirus infection, and thus eligible for the vaccine.

In the 76 days since the rollout began, India has administered over 67 million vaccine doses, of which 9 million have received the second dose as well. In December 2020, the Indian government set itself a target of vaccinating 300 million people by August.

Our World in Data
Total Covid-19 vaccine doses administered in India, compared to other countries in the world.

India’s vaccine drive, though the largest in the world, has been off to a slow start. While the absolute figures may be high, the total vaccinations relative to India’s population of 1.3 billion still remains relatively low.

Our World in Data
Total Covid-19 vaccine doses administered in India and the world, relative to respective populations.

Opening up the vaccinations to those over 45 years will likely give the programme an impetus. The government also announced yesterday that all vaccination centres across the countries will be functional on all 30 days of April, including on weekends and public holidays.

This is particularly significant given that the country is in the grip of a fresh wave of Covid-19 cases. Daily new infections, over 81,000 in the past 24 hours, have been rising consistently over the past few weeks. At the peak of the pandemic in September, the daily new cases were around 90,000 cases.

Inoculating a sizable population is what will enable India to halt this new wave. But faster vaccinations would mean more doses for the country—and fewer for its global vaccine diplomacy.

India’s vaccines to the world

AstraZeneca’s India-made vaccine, manufactured by Serum Institute of India (SII) as Covishield, and India’s homegrown vaccine Covaxin have been exported to over 75 countries in the world. Some of these have been gifts to partner countries, while others have been shipped out under the Covax global vaccine initiative.

As of April 1, India has exported over 64 million doses, nearly as many as it has administered to its own people. But this ratio may soon change, especially as India began curbing its exports over the past weeks.

Covax, for instance, had informed the countries waiting for the Covid-19 vaccines that the batches coming from India would be delayed. “Deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines produced by SII to lower-income economies participating in the Covax Facility will face delays during March and April as the government of India battles a new wave of COVID-19 infections,” it said in a statement on March 25.

India’s stance also comes after mounting criticism at home in what has been perceived as the government’s geopolitical agenda at the cost of its own people.

That might soon change. Under the Covax agreement, for instance, India has received nearly 28 million, or a third of the SII-made vaccines meant for lower- and middle-income countries.

It would need these doses and more to open up the immunisation programme to younger populations.

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