Indian airlines have started delivering batches of COVID-19 vaccines across the country, getting ready for the launch of a campaign to offer shots to 1.3 billion people in what officials call the “world’s biggest vaccination drive”.
The vaccines rolled out from the Serum Institute of India’s facility on Tuesday in temperature-controlled trucks to the city’s airport from where they were loaded into private air carriers for distribution all over the country.
Authorities hope to inoculate 300 million high-risk people over the next six to eight months. Vaccinations are scheduled to begin on Saturday.
First to get the vaccine will be 30 million health and other front-line workers, followed by about 270 million people aged more than 50 or deemed high-risk.
Airlines were due to deliver 5.65 million vaccine doses on Tuesday to various cities, aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said on Twitter, calling the shipping of vaccines a “momentous mission”.
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, officials said vaccine distribution was their top priority.
“These vaccines will be taken to the cold storage from the airport and swiftly delivered to vaccination booths,” said Nitin Patel, Gujarat’s deputy chief minister.
Modi’s government on Monday signed purchase agreements with Pune-based vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India, to buy its Covishield shot – more than a week after approving the vaccine developed by Britain’s AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Serum is supplying some 11 million doses of the shot to the government at 200 rupees ($2.72) a dose, a source said.
India’s drug regulator has also approved for emergency use a homegrown vaccine, Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.
But medical groups and others have raised concern about the drug being approved with scant evidence of its effectiveness.
It still unclear when and where Covaxin will be distributed.
Health authorities in eastern and western states said they would use the experience from regular child immunisation programmes for polio to ensure everyone gets covered in what they called the world’s biggest vaccination drive.
But shoddy transport networks and a crumbling healthcare system add an enormous layer of complexity, they said.
At close to 10.5 million, India has the second-highest number of COVID-19 infections globally behind the United States, although the rate of increase in cases has been slowing.
On Tuesday, the number of infections in India climbed by 12,584, the lowest daily increase in several months. More than 151,000 people have died of the virus in India.