Low vaccination, tardy tracing, rising COVID cases: New challenges for India

India has wasted a golden opportunity it had between December and February, when the number of cases fell drastically, hitting a low of around 8,600, the lowest in eight months.

According to the report, the number of deaths reported following COVID-19 vaccination in India is 0.0002 per cent of the 23.5 crore doses administered, and this is within the expected death rates in a population

A few weeks ago, a close friend and colleague tested positive for coronavirus. He had probably got it from some relatives who had come to his house from Hyderabad, or at a family function they had attended.

The friend, unfortunately, died after his lungs got severely damaged. One of the relatives who had come to his house also passed away. And so did another close relative who was present at the family function.

Not one corona protocol was followed by the government. None of the friend’s contacts were traced, or informed of the illness. (I would know being one of his primary contacts. I tested positive a week later. Nobody bothered to intimate my primary contacts either.)

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Why is this anecdotal experience worth recounting? Because it tells us what’s happening on the ground and explains the reasons behind the second corona wave that is building across the country.

One, the government’s contact-tracing programme is a myth. Just as people have stopped wearing masks, taking precautions, the government has also lowered its guard and left everyone to their fate. Thus, even those with exposure to the virus are moving around freely, unaware that they need to be tested and isolated. The virus is having a free run in the country.

India has wasted a golden opportunity it had between December and February, when the number of cases fell drastically, hitting a low of around 8,600, the lowest in eight months.

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A window of opportunity had opened for India because of two simultaneous events: a rapid decline in the number of cases till the first week of March, and the availability and introduction of vaccines. If used properly, it would have led to rapid gains in the fight against coronavirus. But India failed to show the required urgency and is now facing the consequences.

India exported 5.85 crore doses of corona vaccines, almost double than the number of people it has vaccinated at home since January 16, when two vaccines were approved for domestic use. This figure defies logic even if some of the exports are part of the commitments Indian manufacturers would have made.

In a country with the fourth-highest number of cases and deaths worldwide and the highest mortality rate per million in South Asia, ‘India-first’ should have been the government’s motto. But, for some reason, exports are higher than domestic supply.

When it comes to vaccines, almost every country has prioritised its citizens. The US has almost monopolised jabs produced by Moderna and has vaccinated 121 million people, hitting a daily average of 2.25 million doses. At this rate, by the end of August almost all of the US would have been vaccinated.

By February, Israel had vaccinated more than 84% of people ages 70 and older had received two doses. And by March, it had vaccinated 53% of the population.

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Compare this with India’s current vaccination rate. Till March 20, India had vaccinated just 44 million people, a mere 1.6% of the total population. At this rate, as the Business Standard pointed out in a report, India will need 10.6 years  to administer both doses to 70 per cent of its population to attain herd immunity.

Why is the vaccination rate so slow in India? Is a shortage of vaccines to be blamed?

According to various reports, the Serum Institute of India, which is manufacturing the Astrazeneca vaccine under the label Covishield, has a current production capacity of 70 million doses per month. It plans to ramp it up to 100 million per month. In addition, India has access to Covaxin, the indigeno shot manufactured by Bharat Biotech, which has a production capacity of 70-100 million doses per month. This implies, India can easily generate 150-200 million doses of the two vaccines every month. Why has it been able to utilise just 44 million jabs since January 16 is something that only the government can explain.

India’s tardy progress appears even more confounding when you consider the delay in granting approval to at least two global manufacturers who had approached the government with their proposals for supplying vaccines to India.

Two months ago, US pharma giant Pfizer had applied for an emergency-use nod for its Covid vaccine in India. It withdrew its application earlier this month after the government put some conditions for rolling out the vaccine in India. Similarly, an application by Dr Reddy’s Lab has been waiting for the government’s nod to locally manufacture the Russian COVID vaccine Sputnik V.  Both these vaccines have been in use across the world since January. But India’s reluctance to use them, even when the manufacturers are keen to make in India is perplexing.

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This urgency is underlined by CSIR director general Shekhar Mande’s statement to the media. Mande said he will try to “convince” the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to initiate talks with Pfizer and find out ways to bring it back. Not only Pfizer, he said, the government should also consider inviting Johnson & Johnson and Moderna to India.

With contact-tracing programme having failed, herd immunity induced by vaccines years away (at the existing rate) and a second wave of the virus building up, India is facing a grim battle with the pandemic.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)

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