New Delhi: India has a sufficient stockpile of COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate priority groups such as healthcare workers and frontline workers in the first phase, NITI Aayog member V.K. Paul said on Monday.
Paul, who is also the chairman of the National Expert Group On Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC), said the government will soon announce its plans to purchase and distribute the vaccines.
India’s drug regulator Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) on Sunday approved the Oxford-derived COVID-19 vaccine Covishield, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, and the indigenously developed Covaxin of Bharat Biotech for ‘restricted’ emergency use in the country.
In an interview to news agency PTI, Paul said, “Our first phase (of vaccination) comprises priority groups with high risk of mortality and our healthcare and frontline workers. For them, we believe, we have enough (COVID-19 vaccine) stockpile.”
This would indicate that the country has at least three crore vaccines stocked, as Union health minister Harsh Vardhan had said recently that during the first phase of the rollout, the vaccine would be administered free of cost to one crore healthcare and two crore frontline workers.
The Centre has also identified 27 crore “priority beneficiaries” – those aged 50 or more and those with comorbidities – who would be vaccinated by July 2021.
Asked when the government will announce its plans to purchase and distribute the vaccines, he said, “This will follow. Now the essential has taken place, all these steps will be taken.”
Paul also hinted that in another “three to four months”, approval may be given for “other vaccines”. This, he said, would ensure that there is a larger stockpile. “And more acceleration can be brought about in the vaccination programme,” Paul added.
The country’s biggest challenge in mass inoculation will be the “huge mobilisation that is required for such an effort”, he said.
“Well, the single most important challenge for mass vaccination on such a scale is mobilising beneficiaries on the appointed day and to conduct sessions in smooth, systemic protocols, ensuring COVID-19 appropriate precautions, I think is the single biggest challenge,” he observed.
He estimated that the pandemic would be over once 70% of Indians are immune to the coronavirus, other through vaccination or by adding those people who have undergone natural infection.
The NITI Aayog member hinted that schools, the judicial system and parliament would revert back to normal functioning only after the pandemic has been extinguished.
Replying to a question that India does not have experience in adult vaccination, Paul noted that India has “tremendous experience” of running immunisation programs. “We have experience of running affairs like national elections which happen over a short period of time across the country,” he said.
“So those experiences and those SOP will come handy and build on that India’s ingenuity, India’s innovation and India’s experience will make it possible for us to mount a successful vaccination programme, even though it is unprecedented,” he added.
Even before the DCGI gave its nod to the Covaxin and Covishield, the Centre began preparations for mass vaccination campaigns. On January 2, the government oversaw end-to-end mock drills simulating vaccine administration in 125 districts, spread over all states and Union Territories in the country. These preparations are expected to smoothen the vaccination programme.