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India's Modi kicks off world's largest COVID vaccination drive

Prime minister gives emotional tribute to health care and front-line workers

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's gives a speech inaugurating the country's COVID-19 vaccination program via video link in New Delhi on Jan. 16. (Photo courtesy of Government of India)

NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday launched the world's largest COVID-19 vaccination drive, which is expected to inoculate around 300 million of India's 1.3 billion people over the next few months.

"The whole country had been waiting for this day with bated breath," Modi said as he announced the start of the program via video link to 3,006 vaccination sites nationwide. Roughly 300,000 people are expected to receive shots on the first day.

The vaccine rollout will take place in stages, with 10 million health care providers in the government and private sectors to be given shots first, followed by 20 million other front-line workers, such as police and army troops. Phase 2 will cover 270 million people over the age of 50, along with those having co-morbidities such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

The cost of inoculating the 30 million health care and front-line workers will be borne by the government, which has vowed to vaccinate 300 million people by July or August.

"This is the first time in history that a vaccination drive of this large a scale is taking place," Modi said. "There are more than 100 countries in the world whose population is less than 30 million, while India is inoculating 30 million people in the first phase itself. We will be taking this number to 300 million in the second phase," he vowed.

An artist paints a poster welcoming India's COVID-19 vaccination program with a portrait of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.    © AP

"There are only three countries in the world with a population above 300 million: India, China and the U.S. That's why India's vaccination drive is so huge."

India's drug regulator granted emergency use authorization to two vaccines this month. One was developed by the University of Oxford and British-Swedish company AstraZeneca is being produced locally under the name of Covishield by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India. The other is from Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, which produced the country's first indigenous COVID-19 shot, called Covaxin, in collaboration with the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research. Both are two-dose vaccines designed to be administered 28 days apart. They must be stored  between 2 C and 8 C.

The government has so far bought 11 million Covishield doses from the Serum Institute at a cost of 200 rupees ($2.73) each, excluding taxes. It has also procured 5.5 million Covaxin doses from Bharat Biotech, which made a "special gesture" by waving the charges on 1.65 million doses. The remaining 3.85 million doses were priced at 295 rupees each.

Modi has stressed to citizens that it is essential to receive two doses of the vaccine. "Don't make the mistake of forgetting the second dose after receiving the first one."

He said the Indian-made vaccines are highly cost-effective compared with those made elsewhere. "Some vaccines overseas cost 5,000 rupees per dose and require a minus 70 C storage temperature."

India's vaccines are made with local conditions in mind and will lead to a "decisive victory" in the country's fight against the pandemic, he said, as he praised the efforts of doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, police and others in battling the deadly virus. "Hundreds of [them] could not even return home. They sacrificed their lives to save others," he said, his voice choked with emotion.

The vaccination drive is a crucial step to containing the virus's spread in India, which has the world's second-largest COVID-19 caseload, with more than 10.5 million infections, behind nearly 24 million for the U.S. India has also suffered more than 152,000 deaths, the third-highest death toll, behind the U.S. and Brazil.

The health ministry has developed a digital platform called Co-WIN that will carry real-time information on vaccine stocks and storage temperatures, and provide individualized tracking of recipients.

Some people may experience side effects such as mild fever, pain at the injection site and body aches, which are similar to the side effects of other vaccines, according to Harsh Vardhan, the health minister. "These are expected to go away on their own after some time," Vardhan said.

Although Singapore, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. have all started COVID-19 vaccination drives, India is being watched closely due to the massive scale of the undertaking.

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