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India GDP outlook trimmed as doubts dog effort to vaccinate 940m

Deadly COVID wave abates but central bank and doctors see persistent risks

A vaccination center in Mumbai: The number of daily doses administered nationwide has fallen from 4.3 million in early April to over 2 million this week.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India's deadly second coronavirus wave is receding, with daily cases down to less than half their peak, but the central bank on Friday lopped a full percentage point off its growth forecast and an uneven vaccination campaign is raising concern.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has an ambitious plan to inoculate the entire adult population of about 940 million within the year. The number of daily doses administered nationwide, however, has fallen from as many as 4.3 million in early April to over 2 million on Wednesday, casting doubt on the chances of truly stamping out the virus.

"The spread of COVID-19 infections in rural areas and the dent on urban demand [pose] downside risk," Reserve Bank of India Gov. Shaktikanta Das said Friday after the RBI's policy board meeting. The committee voted unanimously to keep its benchmark rate at 4% while cutting its gross domestic product projection to 9.5% for the fiscal year that began in April, down from the previous 10.5% forecast.

That would still be a major improvement over last fiscal year's 7.3% contraction. With external demand "strengthening," the bank now expects a correction of 18.5% growth in the first quarter, 7.9% in the second, 7.2% in the third and 6.6% in the fourth.

Meanwhile, although new infections have dropped below 200,000 a day from just over 400,000 in early May, health experts are warning against complacency.

"The situation is far better [than a month ago] and it seems the current wave is tapering off," Manish Jangra, a doctor at New Delhi's Ram Manohar Lohia hospital and founder of the Federation of All India Medical Association, told Nikkei Asia. "However, there's a chance of a third wave, too, as was seen in other countries."

The situation remains serious, considering India's previous daily peak last September had been around 97,000 cases. As of Friday, India's total case load stood at about 28.6 million, with 340,702 deaths.

Jangra credited the lockdowns imposed by most states after mid-April with helping to bring the crisis under control. But stepping up vaccinations could prevent or at least minimize another wave.

By sheer volume, India's vaccination effort has proceeded faster than those of many other countries. The 940 million vaccination goal remains distant, though, with nearly 45 million people -- less than 5% -- fully inoculated as of Tuesday.

"It would be good if India can vaccinate its whole adult population by the December-end, as per the government plan, but it looks impractical given the present rate of [inoculations]," Jangra said. Apart from procuring sufficient vaccine supplies, he said the country needs to shore up its health care infrastructure and find enough staff to execute the mammoth endeavor in a short span of time.

Overall, since the vaccination drive began on Jan. 16, 171 million people had received at least one dose as of Tuesday. But some states are complaining of shortages, especially for the 18-44 age group, which became eligible for jabs on May 1.

By sheer volume, India's vaccination drive has been faster than those of most countries.   © Reuters

India is using two locally made vaccines -- Covishield, supplied elsewhere under the AstraZeneca label and produced 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.

Citizens aged 45 and older are being given vaccines free of charge at federal government facilities nationwide. Just before opening the vaccination drive to all adults on May 1, the government also granted states, private hospitals and businesses permission to procure doses directly from the manufacturers.

Now the pricing system is drawing a backlash.

The Serum Institute is selling Covishield to the federal government for 150 rupees ($2.05) per shot, while state governments are paying 300 rupees and private hospitals are forking out 600 rupees. Bharat Biotech is also selling Covaxin to the federal authorities for 150 rupees per dose but charges states 400 rupees and private hospitals 1,200 rupees.

"It is unacceptable that this government should be demanding that states, private hospitals and others compete in some sort of market free-for-all to buy vaccines at different prices, extortionate prices in some cases, when the central government had an arrangement to buy vaccines at affordable prices and give them to the public for free," Shashi Tharoor, a senior leader of the opposition Indian National Congress party, who is recovering from COVID, said in a video on social media on Wednesday.

On the government's plan to vaccinate every adult by the end of December, he said, "I wonder how the government is going to get there."

Despite the criticism, health officials continue to express confidence. "India is one of the five countries producing vaccines" alongside the U.S., Russia, U.K. and China, said Balram Bhargava, director general of the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research, at a media briefing on Tuesday. "If we were not producing vaccines, imagine where would we be?"

He said that "by the middle of July, or early August, we will have more than enough doses to vaccinate up to 10 million people per day ... and should be able to cover the entire [adult] population by [the end] of December."

The government said last month that from August to December, over 2 billion doses are to be made locally for domestic use.

The central bank's Das stressed the importance of smooth progress on immunizations.

"Ramping up the vaccination drive and bridging the gaps in health care infrastructure and vital medical supplies," he said, "can mitigate the pandemic's devastation."

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