India's vaccine jabs may start next week: Officials

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With regulatory approvals granted to two coronavirus vaccines, the Centre has initiated the process of procurement, top government officials said on Monday, and the vaccination drive could begin by end of next week in a phased manner.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the world’s biggest inoculation drive against coronavirus is set to begin in the country, lauding scientists and technicians for the “Made in India” vaccines.

The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) on Sunday announced that it had approved both the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine being manufactured in India by the Serum Institute of India (SII), and Bharat Biotech International Limited’s locally developed vaccine candidate, Covaxin. Covaxin has been recommended for restricted use in “emergency situation in public interest as an abundant precaution”, in clinical trial mode, to have more options for vaccination. All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) director Randeep Guleria said Bharat Biotech’s vaccine has been given approval only as a backup.

“Now that the approvals have been granted, the next step is to initiate the procurement process. The Centre is now looking at striking the purchase deals with the companies concerned. About 50-60 million doses are likely to be procured in batches considering India is looking at vaccinating about 30 million people in the initial phase,” a government official aware of the developments said on condition of anonymity.

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According to the official, the government is in talks with both companies whose vaccines have been approved. DCGI has accepted recommendations made by a subject expert committee of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation to grant restricted emergency approval to the two vaccines.

“The paperwork tends to take some time but arrangements are being made to sign the deal as quickly as possible so that the vaccination drive can soon be kick-started. Dry runs have already been successfully conducted across the country without any major glitches. The digital platform, CoWIN, meant to be used for vaccine delivery is good to go as minor modifications that were needed have been already made,” the official added.

SII chief executive officer Adar Poonawalla has said his firm offered a special price of ₹200 in writing to the Indian government for first 100 million doses. According to the official cited above, the first batch is likely to be taken from SII at the offered price.

Addressing scientists at the National Metrology Conclave, Modi said: “World’s biggest Covid-19 vaccination programme set to begin in India. For this, the country is proud of the contributions of its scientists and technicians.” “Quality is as much important as quantity, our standards should rise with our scale in our quest for Aatmanirbhar Bharat,” he said.

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As per a decision taken earlier by experts in the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19, the Centre has decided to directly procure the vaccine supplies that it will distribute among states as per their requirement.

Once the deals are formally signed with the companies, and vaccine doses are procured, the supplies will be deployed in 31 main hubs by the Centre that it has created in different regions across the country.

“From these 31 main hubs, the supplies will eventually move to 29,000 locally created vaccination points in different states from where state governments will pick up the supplies to be given under the public vaccination initiative. These vaccination points can further be increased if there is a need to add more based on the vaccine requirement,” said another official, asking not to be named.

“Everything is in the advanced stages of preparedness and the immediate phase of vaccination will begin with health care workers in the country, and the current supplies of the vaccine that are available in the country are enough to meet the country’s demand for Covid-19 vaccines,” the official added.

As per government estimates, there are about 10 million health care workers who are in the priority list to be given the jab immediately as part of the first phase of the vaccination exercise, to be followed by about 20 million frontline workers who are involved in managing the pandemic in the country.

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“These two categories are on the immediate list as these are directly involved in managing the Covid-19 crisis. The drive will start with the health care workers though. More categories could be added depending on the availability of the vaccine. For now, the categories that have been broadly defined will get priority,” the official said.

Helplines are being set up at the national and state level to address any queries related to the vaccine or software in use. While the national helpline, 1075, is being upgraded, the states are also augmenting their helpline 104 for the purpose of addressing related queries.

The states have already been training vaccine administrators and also preparing details of the beneficiaries. Around 150,000 vaccinators have been trained so far, covering over 700 districts.

In all, the government has estimated 300 million people who are at high risk of developing severe illness because of their profession, age and co-morbidities, and will be given vaccine shots in the initial phases. The group includes health care workers, frontline workers, and population at high risk of getting severe Covid-19.

Of the 300 million vulnerable population, approximately 10 million are health care workers both in government and private setups (including integrated child development services workers), and about 20 million are frontline workers.

Health care workers have been divided into nine sub-categories. The first category is of frontline health and ICDS workers such as accredited social health activist (ASHA), auxiliary nurse midwife, multipurpose health worker, ASHA facilitators, anganwadi worker (AWW) and AWW sahayika.

The second category is of nurses and supervisors that include staff nurse, public health nurse, lady health visitor, community health officer, child development project officer, chief medical and health officer, district women and child development officer and designated institutional official.

Another category is of medical officers that consists of allopathic doctors, Ayush doctors, dentists, including those on administrative posts, and paramedical staff including lab and operation theatre technicians, pharmacists, physiotherapists radiographers, nursing orderlies, ward boys, etc.

Medical, dental, nursing and paramedical students are also part of the health care staff to be given priority, apart from scientists and research staff, clerical and administrative staff, and support staff such as drivers, security workers and sanitation workers.

Frontline workers comprise personnel from state and central police departments, armed forces, home guards, prison staff, disaster management volunteers and civil defence organisations, municipal workers and revenue officials engaged in Covid-19 containment, and surveillance and associated activities.

About 270 million people are in the high-risk population group that includes 260 million people above the age of 50, and around 10 million people below 50 years with comorbidities such as chronic diabetes and hypertension, cancer, lung diseases, etc.

The age of a beneficiary for vaccination will be considered as on January 1, 2021. Anyone born on or before January 1, 1971 will fall under this category, and the high-risk population group will be further sub-categorised into various age groups with priority to senior citizens above 60 years of age.

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