India’s Covid-19 vaccination strategy is suffering for lack of forward thinking.
After an initial order of nearly 15 million doses in January, the Indian government has been placing vaccine orders in small batches, as and when needed.
On May 3, the government finally shared consolidated details on how many vaccine doses it had ordered so far. In a press release, it said it had placed an order for Serum Institute of India’s (SII) Covishield vaccine, the India-manufactured version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, as recently as April 28. For this order, the government extended an advance of nearly Rs1,700 crore ($230 million) for 110 million doses, which would be delivered only in the months of May, June, and July.
Similarly, the government gave Bharat Biotech an advance of Rs772 crore for 50 million doses of Covaxin, India’s homegrown Covid-19 vaccine.
The Indian government’s strategy is in sharp contrast to the countries that made early pacts with vaccine makers.
For instance, the UK, the US, Israel, or Canada, declared their advance purchases of vaccine doses as early as November. At the time, it was reported that India would buy 500 million doses of Covishield, but the Indian government released no such confirmation. There was no clarity on the stockpile or production pipeline before January when the government officially announced the number of vaccines it had bought.
The way India is procuring vaccines might delay its vaccination drive because manufacturers need time to scale up production.
For example, the Indian government’s latest order came after states had already begun reporting vaccine shortages and at a time when manufacturers were struggling to fulfil existing orders on time. Adar Poonawalla, CEO of SII, told The Financial Times that this shortage could last for months. He also said that his company had not ramped up manufacturing capacity earlier because “there were no orders, we did not think we needed to make more than 1 billion doses a year.”
So far, according to Poonawalla, SII had received orders for 260 million doses from the Indian government, of which his company has supplied 150 million already. The advance payment he has received is for the next 110 million doses, and additionally, his manufacturing unit will work to supply 110 million more doses directly to state governments and private hospitals.
India had set itself a target of vaccinating 300 million healthcare and frontline workers, and those above the age of 45, till August. To fully vaccinate this population, India would need 600 million doses of either of the two-dose vaccines. As of yesterday (May 5), India has administered over 162 million vaccine doses, and fully vaccinated over 31 million people.