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India to expand vaccination effort as it battles infection surge

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India will expand its coronavirus vaccination campaign from April 1 to include everyone aged above 45, a minister said on Tuesday, to meet a demand by many states grappling with a second surge in infections.

FILE PHOTO: Eswar Jani, 31, a sanitation worker, receives COVISHIELD, a COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, during the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination campaigns at Mathalput Community Health Centre in the remote Koraput district of the eastern state of Odisha, India, January 16, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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Information Minister Prakash Javadekar added that there was no shortage of doses in India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, which has donated or exported more than 60 million doses but injected only 49 million doses at home.

“Our appeal is that all above 45 should take vaccine as early as possible,” Javadekar said, after a cabinet meeting, adding that inoculations in the past 24 hours had reached a record.

“There is no scarcity, and supply chains and supply lines are intact,” he said, adding that sufficient vaccine doses were available.

Only the elderly and those over 45 suffering from other health conditions are eligible to be vaccinated currently. Health and frontline workers were the first in line when India began its drive in mid-January.

India’s tally of infections, the third-highest after the United States and Brazil, stands at 11.69 million, amid a second surge that has spurred many states to ask the government to replenish vaccine stocks.

The sudden demand is piling pressure on vaccine makers the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech to step up output. SII has already delayed further shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Brazil, Britain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

The eastern state of Odisha warned the health ministry on Monday that it expected vaccine stocks to be exhausted by March 30, with another batch of the AstraZeneca vaccine, known domestically as Covishield, scheduled to arrive only on April 2.

“We will have no vaccines for four days,” state health official P.K. Mohapatra said in a letter reviewed by Reuters.

“Hence, adequate doses of Covishield vaccine may be supplied in time so as to continue (an) uninterrupted vaccination drive.”

The ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter.

RECORD VACCINATION

Overall vaccinations have climbed to a daily record in India, with the health ministry reporting 3.2 million doses given in the past 24 hours, in an effort that was launched after Britain, China and the United States.

Total vaccinations in India, which aims to vaccinate 300 million of its 1.35 billion people by August, rank as the world’s third highest after China and the United States, but the figure per capita is lower, the website Our World in Data here shows.

Many states want to widen their campaigns to cover all adults after infections rose since late February as the economy reopened fully, although most people still go without masks and flout social distancing advice.

Some states have also given doses to a few outside the priority groups to avoid vaccine wastage.

About 6.5% of India’s vaccine doses go to waste, the health ministry said last week, making it vital for health workers to coordinate the flow.

India is also expected to soon approve Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine for emergency use, which would boost availability.

India reported 40,715 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, with its richest state of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, the financial capital, contributing more than 60% of the total. Deaths rose by 199 to 160,166.

Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneswar and Krishna N. Das in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Chandini Monnappa, Sachin Ravikumar, Aftab Ahmed and Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by Christian Schmollinger