The world is placing considerable hope in Covid-19 vaccines. Among the countries hardest hit by the pandemic is India, with over 10 million infections and 149 000 deaths.
Last week, India began the world’s largest and perhaps most ambitious immunisation programme. The plan is to vaccinate 300 million Indians—30 million health workers and 270 million individuals over 50 years of age—in the next six to eight months.
India has seldom had problems formulating ambitious social protection programmes. Indeed, it has considerable experience in designing some of most ambitious public policies aimed at generating employment and strengthening food security.
However, as in many other countries, implementation challenges have sometimes ensured sub-optimal results. This time around, the stakes are particularly high and several experts are both hopeful as well as worried about the daunting task ahead. Indeed, how India fares will have major implications for very many countries around the world.
Some rich countries that have secured large supplies of Covid-19 vaccines have been unable to vaccinate their populations fast enough. The typical criticisms have been logistical challenges and cumbersome registration procedures for priority groups.
India’s plan includes vaccination teams consisting of five members that will aim to inoculate 100-200 individuals every day. And priority individuals and groups will be identified using the latest electoral roll.
Unlike many other developing countries, India has one major advantage—it is considered by many to be a pharmaceutical superpower. It has a huge and thriving pharmaceutical industry and is often referred to as the world’s pharmacy.
While the country’s Serum Institute is the world’s largest producer of vaccines, Indian pharmaceutical companies supply essential medicines not just to countries on the African continent but also to the United States and Europe.
The two vaccines that have been approved by the Indian authorities are the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine (known locally as Covishield) and Covaxin that has been developed by India’s National Institute of Virology and a private pharmaceutical company.
Although patients will not have the option of choosing which vaccine they receive, both vaccines are being offered for free. But the final phase of clinical trials for Covaxin are yet to be completed and critics are demanding that the government make public the efficacy data from previous trials.
Another set of challenges relate to transportation and the availability of appropriate cold storage facilities with summer fast approaching.
The success of this ambitious vaccine drive may well boil down to the legitimacy of the Indian state and the extent to which citizens trust their government to provide a safe vaccine in these troubling times.
And this in turn will have implications for India’s vaccine diplomacy in the months ahead and its ability to produce and supply Covid-19 vaccines to the African continent.