On January 16, a sanitation worker at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi became the first Indian to receive a novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) jab, as the world's second-most populous country started the largest inoculation drive. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the drive, which aims to vaccinate more than 1.3 billion people against the contagion.
India has inoculated 631,417 people in the first four days of the launch of its ambitious vaccination programme. However, the jury is still out on the timeline.
PM Modi paid homage to front-line workers who will be the first to receive the jab. India has recorded the second-highest number of Covid-19 infections in the world at over 10.6 million and more than 152,000 deaths after the United States (US) to date.
Millions of doses of two approved vaccines - Covishield and Covaxin - were shipped across the country in the days leading up to the start of the drive.
"We're launching the world's biggest vaccinaÂtion drive and it shows the world our capability," PM Modi, said, addressing the country on SaturÂday morning.
He added that India was fully prepared to vacÂcinate its population with the help of a mobile application. The app, he said, would help the govÂernment track the drive and ensure that nobody was left out.
PM Modi spoke at length about doctors, nurses and other front-line workers "who showed us the light" in "dark times".
He turned emotional in the course of the nation-wide televised address.
"They stayed away from their families to serve humanity. And hundreds of them never went home. They gave their life to save others. And that is why the first jabs are being given to healthcare workers - this is our way of paying respect to them."
PM Modi chose the occasion to appeal to the public to continue complying with Covid-19 safety protocols such as wearing masks and folÂlowing social distancing. He said the country canÂnot afford to be complacent as vaccinating the entire population would take time.
He also urged people not to believe any "proÂpaganda and rumours about the safety of the vacÂcines". "I want to tell people that the approval to these vaccines was given only after scientists and experts were satisfied with its safety," he said.
However, it was not clear whether Modi, 70, had received the vaccine.
The Modi administration has said politicians would not be considered a priority group in the first phase of the vaccine rollout.
India will provide supplies of Covid-19 vaccines to Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and SeyÂchelles under its grant assistance programme.
Shipments will also be sent to Sri Lanka, AfÂghanistan and Mauritius after receipt of necessary regulatory clearances.
An estimated 10 million (m) health workers will be vaccinated in the first round, followed by policemen, soldiers, municipal and other front-line workers.
The government has been working overtime to draw up a distinct category of people, who are a priority to get vaccinated.
Next in line will be people aged over 50 and anyone under 50 with serious underlying health conditions.
The methodology used for identifying the vulÂnerable population and eligible recipients is not Aadhaar cards, which are similar to the Emirates ID (United Arab Emirates Resident Identity Card), but the electoral rolls that contain data of over 900 million voters.
The government has chalked out an ambitious plan to vaccinate 300 million Indians, roughly the population of the US, by early August. The reÂcipients include 30 million doctors, nurses, and other front-line workers, to be followed by 270 million people.
But that timeline appears unrealistic at this point in time.
The drive will be conducted in state-run health care centres, schools, colleges, community halls, municipal offices and wedding halls.
Several hospitals across the country are giving the first doses of the vaccine.
So far, the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI), the country's drug regulator, has apÂproved two vaccines -- Covishield (the Indian name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine develÂoped in the United Kingdom and manufactured by Pune-based Serum Institute of India) and CoÂvaxin, which is made by Hyderabad-based pharÂmaceutical company Bharat Biotech InternationÂal Limited.
The efficacy of Covaxin remains a suspect beÂcause the regulator's emergency approval came before the completion of Phase 3 clinical trials. However, the regulator and the manufacturer maintain that the vaccine is safe and that the efÂficacy data is likely to be available by February.
Contrary to Sinopharm and the Pfizer-BioNÂTech vaccines that are being administered in the UAE as two doses 21 days apart, Covishield and Covaxin will be given as two jabs, 28 days apart.
THE SECOND DOSE IS A BOOSTER.
Immunity would begin to kick in after the first dose but reaches its full effect 14 days after the second dose.
The status of the vaccines and their recipients will be electronically tracked on a real-time basis.
Data showed around eight million people, who have been pencilled in for the early jabs, have registered to date. More than 600,000 people have been trained for the enormous drive.
At this stage, the jabs are voluntary.
Similar to the UAE, the recipients will be given a certificate of vaccination after they complete both doses.
The drive has kicked in at a time when the infecÂtion caused due to contraction of SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, has come down sharply to around 15,000 daily from a record high of over 90,000 in end-September. Life is back to normal in the country's teeming megapolises such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai.
Much of life has returned to normal.
Most experts exude cautious optimism about the drive to be a success in the long run. They cite that India is poised to overcome the challenge, as the country has been billed as a vaccine-making powÂerhouse. Also, India's immunisation programme for tens of millions of new-borns and their mothers have been case studies the world over.
WHAT ARE THE REAL CHALLENGES?
Perhaps, the world's biggest vaccination drive will face its first big challenges when the turn of the general population beyond the 300 million initial recipients comes.
Is the country's digital transformation equipped enough to live up to the challenge? After all, inÂternet networks in vast parts of the country are at best sluggish and patchy. Besides, the internet of things (IoTs) is still a pipe-dream beyond the big cities and B-towns.
The flip side is not every Indian owns a smartÂphone or knows how to use an app.
How can the Modi administration ensure that no individual is inadvertently excluded?
Many are also reluctant to take the jab, as the hesitancy appears to stem from swirling rumours, half-truths and misconceptions, which the govÂernment is trying to allay.
The public confidence is shaken largely because of the government's hurried approval of Covaxin.
Data suggests in parts of north India, people are averse to receive jabs. Antipathy towards the polio vaccine is a case in point, as misinformation took centre stage on several occasions that the jabs could cause infertility.
Social media, abuzz with similar disinformation has become one of the major hurdles for the govÂernment's vaccination drive.
The government needs to ramp up its commuÂnication and messaging to bolster the campaign and change community perception about the mammoth exercise.
Side-effects are another area of concern. But the country is known for a 34-year-old surveilÂlance programme for monitoring such "adverse events" following immunisation.
Rumour-mongering peaks when adverse effects of administering jabs are either underreported or there is an element of opacity linked to it.
But India, which has overcome several chalÂlenges in the past, is confident of crossing the line with flying colours.
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