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India starts world's largest coronavirus vaccination drive, more than 300 million shots planned

The recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other front-line workers to be followed by 270 million others.
A medical worker inoculates a security guard with a Covid-19 vaccine at the King Koti hospital in Hyderabad on Saturday.NOAH SEELAM / AFP - Getty Images

NEW DELHI — India began inoculating health workers Saturday in what is likely the world's largest Covid-19 vaccination campaign, joining the ranks of wealthier nations where the effort is already underway.

Indian authorities hope to give shots to 300 million people, roughly the population of the United States. But there is no playbook for the enormity of the challenge.

The recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other front-line workers to be followed by 270 million others, who are either aged over 50 or have illnesses that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.

For workers who have pulled India's battered health care system through the pandemic, the shots offered confidence that life can start returning to normal.

“I am excited that I am among the first to get the vaccine,” said nurse Gita Devi, as she lifted her sleeve to receive the shot.

“I am happy to get an India made vaccine and we do not have to depend on others for it,” said Devi, who has treated patients throughout the pandemic in a hospital in Lucknow, the capital of heartland Uttar Pradesh state.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted the campaign with a nationally televised speech.

“We are launching the world's biggest vaccination drive and it shows the world our capability,” Modi said. But he implored citizens to keep their guard up and not to believe any “rumors about the safety of the vaccines.”

It was not clear if Modi, 70, has taken the vaccine himself like other world leaders as an example of the shot's safety. His government has said politicians will not be considered priority groups in the first phase of the rollout.

The sheer scale of the vaccination drive has its obstacles.

For instance, India plans to rely heavily on a digital platform to track the shipment and delivery of vaccines. But public health experts point out that the internet remains patchy in large parts of the country, and some remote villages are entirely unconnected.

India has approved emergency use of two vaccines, one developed by Oxford University and U.K.-based drugmaker AstraZeneca, and another by Indian company Bharat Biotech, on Jan. 4. Cargo planes flew 16.5 million shots to different Indian cities last week.

Health experts worry that the regulatory shortcut taken to approve the Bharat Biotech vaccine without waiting for concrete data that would show its efficacy, could amplify vaccine hesitancy. At least one state health minister has opposed its use.

India's Health Ministry has bristled at the criticism and says the vaccines are safe, but maintains that health workers will have no choice in deciding which vaccine they could get.

According to Dr. S.P. Kalantri, the director of a rural hospital in Maharashtra, India's worst-hit state, such an approach was worrying because he said the regulatory approval was hasty and not backed by science.

“In a hurry to be populist, the government (is) taking decisions that might not be in the best interest of the common man,” Kalantri said.

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Against the backdrop of a rising global coronavirus death toll — it topped 2 million on Friday — the clock is ticking to vaccinate as many people as possible. But the global campaign has been uneven.

In wealthy countries including the United States, Britain, Canada and Germany, millions of citizens have already been given some measure of protection with at least one dose of vaccine. But elsewhere, immunization drives have barely gotten off the ground.

While the majority of doses have been snapped up by wealthy countries, COVAX, a U.N.-backed project to supply shots to developing parts of the world, has found itself short of vaccines, money and logistical help.

As a result, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist warned it was highly unlikely that herd immunity — which would require at least 70% of the globe to be vaccinated — will be achieved this year.