NEW DELHI -- As coronavirus cases continue to surge in India, the country is expanding its vaccination drive to include all people over 45 years of age, a group that covers 340 million and that the government says accounts for 88% of COVID-19 deaths.
The move will come into effect from April 1 as part of the world's largest inoculation drive that was launched on Jan. 16 with jabs to health care professionals, police and other front-line workers. The second phase of the program began on March 1 involving all citizens above 60 as well as those older than 45 who had preexisting health problems.
The decision to expand the vaccination drive to include everyone in the 45-year-old and above age group is because it is "the most vulnerable population group and needs to be protected first," Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said in a Wednesday media briefing, pointing to the high coronavirus-linked fatality rate within the group.
The vaccination push comes as India's daily cases are rising again after a decline in January and February. On Thursday, the country reported 53,476 infections -- the highest in over five months -- pushing the county total to over 11.78 million while deaths jumped by 251 to 160,692. India has the third-highest caseload after the U.S. and Brazil and the fourth-highest number of fatalities.
Experts say that as cases began to decrease and vaccines became available earlier in the year, people let their guard down. Mask-wearing became less prevalent and social distancing measures were increasingly ignored, triggering a rise in numbers.
"Don't be careless," warned V.K. Paul, one of the top government health advisers, pointing out that over 70% of the Indian population was still susceptible to the virus as per a recent survey.
With the Holi annual festival of colors falling on Mar. 29 and several other celebrations around the corner, he advised people to avoid large gatherings and continue to wear masks.
Mumbai and Delhi have already announced a ban on public Holi celebrations, during which people smear each other with color and throw water. The financial hub of Mumbai reported its highest single-day spike with 5,185 cases on Wednesday, while the capital of Delhi also recorded the most cases in over three months at 1,254.
"Localized spread of infection is a matter of concern," said Rajinder K. Dhamija, head of the neurology department at New Delhi's Lady Hardinge Medical College, in comments to Nikkei Asia, highlighting the need to further speed vaccinations, especially in areas reporting daily spikes.
Cases are rising more rapidly as compared to last year when the country saw the first wave, he said.
"We are seeing the early second wave and completing more than one year of our fight together against this virus," said Balram Bhargava, director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, at a Wednesday briefing, emphasizing that testing, masks and vaccinations are important.
Currently, vaccinations in India are being done at more than 34,000 government facilities and over 5,000 private centers. The government has urged the private sector to speed up its efforts.
India, where more than 53 million vaccine doses have so far been administered, aims to inoculate 300 million people by August. In early January, its drug regulator granted emergency use approval to two vaccines: Covishield, the local name of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India; and Covaxin, which was developed by Indian drugmaker Bharat Biotech. Both require two doses, administered after a gap of 28 days.
The government is urging eligible people to be vaccinated, saying there are enough jabs available for all, amid reports of shortages. "On behalf of the government, I would like to emphasize ... that we have adequate supplies of vaccine," Paul said
Meanwhile, "a new double mutant variant" of the coronavirus has been detected in India along with several other variants, according to the health ministry, which said there is no evidence to suggest they are linked to the rapid surge in cases.
A double mutation occurs when two mutations of a virus combine to form a third strain. This novel variant has been found in 206 samples in the western state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located and nine samples in Delhi.
India has also already confirmed the presence of variants first detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.