NEW DELHI -- All Indian citizens above 18 years of age -- about 940 million people -- will be vaccinated against coronavirus for no cost starting June 21, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Monday as the country fights a ferocious second wave of the pandemic.
"The federal government will provide vaccines to all countrymen for free of charge," Modi said in an address to the nation, adding his government is also taking over all state-level procurement of jabs. Until now, free vaccines have been available to people older than 45.
The announcement comes on a day when India recorded its lowest daily caseload in 61 days -- 100,636 -- signaling that the current wave during which it saw the daily infections hitting over 400,000 in early May is receding. The country's total caseload of 28.9 million, with 349,186 deaths, is the world's second highest after the U.S.'s 33.36 million.
Several parts of the country started easing restrictions from Monday after remaining under a lockdown for over a month. The capital city of Delhi allowed Metro rail service to run with half its capacity while shopping malls and markets too have been permitted to open partially.
India, a country of over 1.3 billion people, has set a target of vaccinating all of its adult population against coronavirus by the end of December.
The country is using two locally made vaccines -- Covishield, supplied elsewhere under the AstraZeneca label and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India; and Covaxin, developed by Indian drugmaker Bharat Biotech. Russia's Sputnik V vaccine has also been approved for emergency use.
Out of the total vaccines produced in the country, the federal government will buy 75% and give them to state governments for free, while private hospitals will continue to procure the remaining 25%, Modi said in his address. When the vaccination drive launched in January was widened to include all adults on May 1, the state governments too had been allowed to buy jabs directly from manufacturers, but they faced difficulties in procuring them and some also raised concerns about differential pricing.
The Serum Institute was selling Covishield to the federal government for 150 rupees ($2.05) per shot, while state governments were paying 300 rupees. Bharat Biotech was also selling Covaxin to the federal authorities for 150 rupees per dose, but charged states 400 rupees.
Modi said the 25% vaccination procurement that was with states will now be undertaken by the federal government. "States will not have to spend anything [now] on procuring jabs," he said, adding those citizens who want to get vaccinated at private hospitals can do so. However, those facilities can levy service charges of only 150 rupees per shot over the cost of the vaccine, while all government hospitals will provide COVID jabs free of cost from June 21 onward.
In another major announcement on Monday, Modi said his government will continue its scheme of providing free food grains to 800 million residents until the festival of Diwali in November, in order to help the poor deal with the crisis posed by the pandemic.
"Our fight against the second wave [of coronavirus] is on," Modi said, calling it the "biggest" epidemic in the last 100 years which the modern world had never experience before.