• AFP-Jiji, Bloomberg


India’s COVID-19 vaccination drive had a successful start with more than 224,000 people receiving their first jabs and just three people hospitalized for experiencing side effects, the health ministry said Sunday, as reports emerged about concerns over a homegrown vaccine.

Authorities have given emergency-use approval for two shots — Covishield, a version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and the Indian-made Covaxin, which has yet to complete its Phase 3 trials.

The government plans to immunize some 300 million people out of its population of 1.3 billion by July.

India’s rollout is being closely watched as a test case for whether COVID-19 can be swiftly tamed via vaccination in developing nations, where health and transportation networks are often disjointed.

Front-line workers such as hospital staff, people over 50 and those deemed to be at high risk due to pre-existing medical conditions are on the shortlist to receive the vaccines.

“We have got encouraging and satisfactory feedback results on the first day,” Health Minister Harsh Vardhan told his state counterparts on Saturday.

“This vaccine will indeed be a ‘Sanjeevani’ (life saver)” in the fight against the virus, he added.

The health ministry said Sunday that 447 people reported experiencing side effects — mostly fever, headache and nausea — after being given their shot, with three people admitted to hospitals.

Two have already been discharged, the ministry added.

Just six states carried out vaccinations on Sunday, the second day of the rollout. The government has advised local authorities to limit inoculations to four days a week so as to reduce disruptions to routine health services.

The updated vaccination figures came as a doctors’ representative body at the Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in New Delhi wrote a letter asking for the Covishield vaccine to be supplied instead of Covaxin.

“The residents are a bit apprehensive about the lack of complete trial in case of Covaxin and might not participate in huge numbers thus defeating the purpose of vaccination,” said the letter addressing the hospital’s medical superintendent, seen by AFP.

“We request you to vaccinate us with Covishield, which has completed all stages of trial before its rollout.”

Pathologist Arvind Ahuja said at the hospital on Saturday that he shared some of the concerns.

“I hope when the data comes out, it is good. Ideally, they should have waited for one month at least as then we would have known better about its efficacy,” the 45-year-old said.

Vaccine hesitancy has emerged as a major concern, with a recent survey of 18,000 people across India finding that 69% were in no rush to get a shot.

Leading scientists and doctors have called on authorities to release efficacy data about Covaxin to boost confidence about the vaccine.

Covaxin recipients on Saturday had to sign a consent form that stated its “clinical efficacy… is yet to be established”.

Officials had hoped to inoculate 300,000 people on Saturday but said glitches with an app used to coordinate and monitor the process meant not all potential recipients were alerted.

India’s deployment blueprint “has a level of detail which I haven’t seen in any other rollout plans,” said Prashant Yadav, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington.

But those arrangements may face bottlenecks and vaccine wastage when implemented by the country’s four levels of government, particularly once deployment fans out to India’s rural hinterland, he said.

“There are going to be clinics in places which don’t have as much demand as was originally planned, which requires changing the plan, making supply shift to other locations quickly,” Yadav said. “Is the decision-making going to be agile?”

Yadav added that “it’s unclear whether every state, district, every vaccine site will get both,” and if Indians will get a choice. “People have questions about both, but particularly about one of them,” he said. “That is the trickiest part of this rollout.”

India has the world’s second-largest known caseload with more than 10.5 million coronavirus infections and over 152,000 deaths so far.

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