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COVID vaccines

India stumbles in race to vaccinate 300m by August

National campaign stalls amid safety concerns about homegrown COVID shots

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives a dose of the Covaxin coronavirus vaccine in New Delhi on March 1.   © AP

NEW DELHI -- India's ambitious goal of vaccinating 300 million people against the coronavirus by August has quickly hit a snag due to concerns surrounding the country's homegrown vaccine.

When vaccinations started being administered to those aged 60 and over on Monday last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a picture of himself receiving the first dose to demonstrate the safety of the inoculation.

"Is it done already?" Modi said at the time. "I didn't even feel it."

Foreign Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also posted a photo of himself getting the jab on Twitter. Both Modi and Jaishankar, along with most of senior administration officials, received the Covaxin vaccine developed by India's Bharat Biotech.

Covaxin and Covishield -- the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the U.K. -- were approved by the Indian government in early January. Covishield is being manufactured locally by the Serum Institute of India.

The two vaccines are key to what is expected to be the world's largest vaccination drive, with the government seeking to reach 300 million people by August. But at this point, that goal may not be achieved within the year, according to local media. India would need to scale up the vaccinations nearly tenfold to meet the target.

One of the biggest hurdles facing the vaccine drive is that people are not free to choose which brand of vaccine to take.

"I won't go to get vaccinated because I'm worried about the Indian-made vaccine," said an office worker in her 30s.

Covaxin was approved after the vaccine cleared two stages of a three-stage clinical trial process. At the time, some experts expressed concerns about the lack of data.

India has fast-tracked its domestically made coronavirus shots with an eye on countering the vaccine diplomacy being conducted by China and Russia. Although India is the world's biggest producer of vaccines of any type, China and Russia are currently further along in rolling out the injections. To convince the public that the vaccines are safe, Modi's administration may need to present more data demonstrating its case.

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