India has started inoculating health workers in what is likely the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccination campaign, joining the ranks of wealthier nations where the effort is already well underway.
The country is home to the world’s largest vaccine makers and has one of the biggest immunization programs. But there is no playbook for the enormity of the current challenge.
Indian authorities hope to give shots to 300 million people, roughly the population of the US and several times more than its existing program that targets 26 million infants. The recipients include 30 million doctors, nurses and other front-line workers, to be followed by 270 million people who are either over 50 years old or have illnesses that make them vulnerable to Covid-19.
The first dose was administered to a sanitation worker at the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital. New Delhi, after 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. He implored citizens to keep their guard up and not to believe any “rumors about the safety of the vaccines.”
It was not clear whether Modi, 70, had 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.
For workers who have pulled India’s battered healthcare 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,” Gita Devi, a nurse, said as she lifted her left sleeve to receive the shot.
“I am happy to get an India-made vaccine and that 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 Uttar Pradesh state in India’s heartland.
Health officials haven’t specified what percentage of India’s nearly 1.4 billion people will be targeted by the campaign. But experts say it will almost certainly be the largest such drive globally.
India is second to the US with 10.5 million confirmed cases, and ranks third in the number of deaths, behind the US and Brazil, with 152,000.
Over 35 million doses of various COVID-19 vaccines have been administered around the world, according to the University of Oxford.