India orders 300m COVID shots as court demands vaccine ‘roadmap’

In a first, India places order for yet-to-be approved vaccine amid criticism of the government’s handling of the vaccination programme.

A man receives a COVID jab at a vaccination centre in New Delhi [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

India’s government has signed its first purchase order for unapproved COVID-19 vaccines, a day after it faced criticism from the top court about an “arbitrary and irrational” vaccine rollout that has left millions of people vulnerable.

After a devastating second wave of infections that killed tens of thousands in April and May, the focus has shifted to urgently inoculating India’s vast adult population to curb infections later this year.

The government will buy 300 million doses from local firm Biological-E and has put down an advance of $205.6m, the health ministry said, even though the vaccine is still undergoing phase-3 clinical trials before approvals can be given.

“The arrangement with M/s Biological-E is part of the wider endeavour of Government of India to encourage indigenous vaccine manufacturers by providing them support in Research & Development (R&D) and also financial support,” the ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

India has been inoculating people with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine produced locally at the Serum Institute of India (SII), Covaxin made by local firm Bharat Biotech, and has begun rolling out Russia’s Sputnik V.

But supplies are running low after the government opened vaccinations to adults of all ages last month. Some vaccination centres have had to close down, prompting criticism from the Supreme Court about a lack of proper planning.

While the federal government gave free vaccines to the elderly and front-line workers, it left it to state governments and private hospitals to administer doses to people in the 18-44 age group at a pre-determined price.

“The policy of the central government for conducting free vaccination themselves for groups under the first two phases, and replacing it with paid vaccination… is, prima facie, arbitrary and irrational,” the Supreme Court said.

Younger people were just as vulnerable, as the second wave of infections had shown, the court said.

It asked the government to review its vaccination policy, produce a roadmap, and said the court would not stand by when citizens’ constitutional rights were at risk.

So far, about 4.7 percent of the country’s 950 million adult population have been given both doses.

The government said this week supplies are improving and it could have as many as 10 million doses a day in July and August, up from just under three million now.

The SII has sought regulatory approval to make Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, a senior government official said, on top of the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Novavax Inc shots it is already producing.

The federal drugs regulator did not immediately respond to a Reuters news agency’s email seeking comment.

India on Thursday announced 134,154 new COVID-19 infections over the past 24 hours, still high but down more than 65 percent from a peak of 414,188 reported on May 7.

The official recorded caseload since the start of the pandemic now stands at 28.4 million, second only to the United States in terms of total infections. Casualties so far number 337,989.

Health experts have warned of a third wave in a few months as restrictions brought on by the second wave are eased and have underlined that vaccinating a large percentage of the population is the only way forward.

Source: News Agencies