People irked as COVID vaccine certificates land even without the jab

Experts blame it on glitches in CoWIN app; fear this may raise doubts on vaccination data

COVID-19 vaccine booster
The CoWIN app is the arterial system through which the entire process of vaccination is completed.

At a time when the country is grappling with the deadly second wave of COVID along with a vaccine scarcity, a bizarre scenario is being witnessed. Many people are receiving vaccination certificates without getting the jab at all.

Take, for instance, Meenakshi Bhardwaj of Gurugram. She had booked the 2-4 pm slot for May 6 on the CoWIN (COVID Vaccine Intelligence Network) portal for both her parents, she told The Federal.

“My father couldn’t make it to the centre, so it was just my mother who got vaccinated that day. While coming back, at around 4:30 pm, I received a message stating that my father is vaccinated,” Bhardwaj said.  “We tried to contact the helpline numbers on CoWIN, but it did not work. I tried registering my father again for the first dose, but the website said he has already vaccinated received it.”

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Bhardwaj said she now has to wait for another month to get her father vaccinated. The fact that he leaves home to work every day adds to her anxiety. “I am scared that he is more exposed to infection,” she said.

What the guidelines say

According to the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), a photo ID proof of the applicant is mandatory during the time of registration for a COVID vaccine. This needs to be verified at the vaccination centre. Once a dose is administered, the beneficiary receives an SMS on his/her registered mobile number. Then, a QR code-based certificate is sent to the same mobile number.

However, for Naveen Sharma, a general practitioner in Morena, Madhya Pradesh, this was not the case. He received a certificate even before reaching the vaccination centre. He posted a video on the entire ordeal on his YouTube channel.

“I was scheduled to get inoculated for the second dose of COVID vaccine on April 13 at a vaccination centre in Morena. I booked the 8-10 am slot,” recalled Sharma. “But, I could not go for the vaccination at the scheduled time. At around 11 am, a message notification along with the online vaccination certificate popped up on my phone saying that I was successfully inoculated.”

Later, when he visited the vaccination centre to enquire about the glitch, he was not given any definite answer. Instead, he was asked by the centre’s staff to get inoculated.

“Since I understand technology, I could figure out that something is not right. But what about those who are not tech-savvy or who are uneducated? They would have been easily fooled with this,” he rued.

Purshotam Das (name changed) had a similar experience. His 57-year-old father and 54-year-old mother were scheduled to get vaccinated on May 8 at a centre in Chinsurah Town of Hooghly. They booked a 10 am to 12.00 pm slot.

“When my parents reached the vaccination centre, they were initially turned away by the staff saying that their online registration was not applicable for the vaccination process,” said Das. “They were told to register again and get the slot. At around 12:30 pm, both of them received a message saying they were successfully vaccinated and, along with it, came the certificates.”

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After back-and-forth calls with the health supervisors, and threats of a police complaint, his parents were able to get vaccinated. “The centre’s staff said the vaccination certificate they received earlier would be applicable. But this is such irresponsible behaviour,” he added.

Lack of response

Krishna Medikonda of Narasaraopet in Andhra Pradesh is less lucky. After a similar experience, he is still struggling to get a response from the MoHFW for his parents.

“I booked a slot at the Santhamagluru government vaccination centre,” said Medikonda. “On reaching the centre, my parents were turned away. The staff told them that they were inoculating only those who are yet to receive the second dose. However, at around 1:37 pm, they received a notification that both of them are inoculated, along with the vaccination certificate.”

After making several calls, and filing a complaint on the MoHFW portal, the couple is waiting for a response. Medikonda tried registering again, but could not book a slot, as there are no vaccines available in his area.

Several others in his locality have had a similar experience, said Medikonda. “My father is 50 years old and has diabetes. My mother is 46 years old and suffers from asthma. My father is a government employee and has to go to work every day. Without vaccination, I fear that he might contract the virus.”

He is regularly posting on Twitter, tagging the ministry, in the hopes of getting a response.

Similar incidents are also being reported in Faridabad and Mumbai.

Poor memory to blame?

Explaining the procedure followed at a vaccination centre, Swapnil Kamble, a junior officer at a centre in Kalapada, Mumbai, told The Federal that such mistakes cannot be manual.

“The details of every individual who intends to get vaccinated are assembled in the CoWIN app. Sometimes spot registration is also done for patients who could not register through the portal earlier, or who cannot recall the mobile number. After this, a token is generated, based on which, the individuals are called for vaccination,” he said.

The staff have a list of individuals who are to get inoculated that day. Apart from updating the data on the system, they also make sure that the data is filled manually in the paperwork in the Annexure provided by the government. This is done to ensure that no information is left out and that correct data are entered and sent to the District Medical Officer.

“After the entire process, the data of any individual are updated on the CoWIN app. So, such mistakes are not possible manually. We have well-trained data operators, supervised by doctors and nurses, for such an important process,” Kamble said.

“We haven’t had any such case so far. However, there are cases where individuals — especially elderly people — are unable to recall their correct Aadhaar number or phone number. In such cases, there is a possibility that people receive vaccination messages or certificates.”

Kamble also ruled out technical glitches in the portal.

However, a block programme official based in Uttar Pradesh, on condition of anonymity, told The Federal that technical glitches in the CoWIN app were surely behind the ‘false’ certificates.

“The CoWIN app is the arterial system through which the entire process of vaccination is completed. It has this large database where everything related to vaccination is maintained. I don’t disagree that manual mistakes cannot happen. But all of us at our end are trying our best to make sure the correct data are entered into the system. However, since it is a website, technical glitches are very likely. In some cases, we have also faced the challenge of updating information in the system due to these glitches,” said the official.

App glitch concerns

Any individual who wants to get inoculated can book a slot either through CoWIN or the Aarogya Setu website/app. According to the Centre, CoWIN offers a reliable and glitch-free option.

In January, law student Aniket Gaurav filed an RTI (Right to Information) query with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), seeking details on the maker of the CoWIN app. In its January 19 response, MeitY said no information is available on this.

Last month, the Internet Freedom Foundation, an independent organisation, filed an RTI query with the MoHFW regarding the data privacy of individuals registered on CoWIN. The Ministry responded that it cannot provide details regarding the privacy policy of the app.

Experts say that the information gaps create a major loophole in the vaccination process.

Major loophole

“Any system or website with such a large database can easily generate information without any assistance,” said Animesh Rathi, a Bengaluru-based data scientist. “It can also source out, update or leak the data through a third party. In this case, if the information is already available on the website when a person registers it, this mistake of generating vaccination certificates without any human interference becomes very easy. The system only requires a person’s details, which is already available in the database. So, there is a high possibility that the certificates can be generated without vaccination.”

Another Gurugram-based data scientist, Bhuvnesh Kumar, concurred. According to Kumar, with such a large database, the owner or operator of the website can generate certificates without any issue.

Rathi further said if this is not rectified, vaccination data become questionable.  According to the MoHFW, nearly 18 crore people have been inoculated so far.