NEW DELHI: India on Saturday launched what Prime Minister Narendra Modi called “the world’s biggest vaccination drive” to inoculate 1.3 billion people against the coronavirus.
In the first stage of the campaign, which will run through August, the main target will be 30 million front-line health workers, followed by 270 million people above the age of 50, who are deemed to be at a higher risk. Two locally produced vaccines — Covishield and Covaxin — will be used in the nationwide immunization drive.
“We are launching the world’s biggest vaccination drive and it shows the world our capability,” Modi said, as he praised the “skills and talents of Indian scientists” while launching the campaign in New Delhi.
Covishield is a form of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine locally produced by the Serum Institute of India in Pune. Covaxin was developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research and Bharat Biotech in Hyderabad.
“It takes years to make a vaccine, but in such a short time, not one, but two made-in-India vaccines were developed. This is a testimony to the skills and talent of our scientists,” Modi said.
About 300,000 healthcare workers have been vaccinated in 3,006 centers across the country. After 28 days, each will have to take another vaccine dose.
“We are lucky to have a vaccine in our country on a high priority. Vaccination is the only way to address the viral disease,” Dr. Sumi Nandwani of the Super Specialty Pediatric Hospital in the Indian city of Noida told Arab News after getting her jab.
Nitu Kumar, who works as a lab technician at the same hospital, also took the jab, describing it as “a necessity if one has to free the country from coronavirus.”
However, doctors are raising concerns over the efficacy of Covaxin, which had been approved for emergency use by India’s drug regulator despite lacking late-stage clinical trials.
“We would like to bring to your notice that the residents are a bit apprehensive about the lack of complete trials in the case of Covaxin and might not participate in huge numbers, thus defeating the purpose of the vaccination campaign,” the Resident Doctors Association of the government-run Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi said in a letter to hospital authorities.
“We request you to vaccinate us with Covishield, which has completed all stages of the trial before its rollout,” they said.
On Thursday, a group of 13 renowned scientists asked the government to release the Covaxin Phase Three trial results.
“It is imperative that relevant data from the larger Phase Three trial becomes available before administering the vaccine to large numbers of people,” the group said in a statement said, adding that “providing a vaccine without adequate efficacy data can lead to a false sense of security among vaccine recipients.”
During Saturday’s vaccination campaign launch, Modi dismissed similar concerns as “rumors,” citing the vaccine’s approval by the Drug Controller General of India.
Dr. Avinash Bhondwe, president of Maharashtra state’s chapter of India’s premier medical body, the Indian Medical Association, said that people should get vaccinated “without fear and doubt.”
He said: “The Indian Medical Association has gone through all the papers and data available and it is found that both the vaccines are worth taking and do not cause any major side effects.”
Noida-based pulmonologist Dr. Loveleen Mangla said that he feels that “people should go in for vaccination,” but added that, as there is much speculation, people should “decide for themselves” whether they want to be inoculated.
“It should be voluntary,” he said.
However, according to Delhi-based health expert Dr. Anant Bhan, more transparency on vaccine data would help build trust.
“The launch of a vaccination program is welcome as a key public health response to the pandemic,” he said.
“More transparency would hence have been welcome, which would have built further trust in the vaccination efforts.
“Having clear data on safety, immunogenicity and efficacy is crucial,” he told Arab News, adding that regulatory decisions, even during emergency situations, “need to be grounded in science and evidence.”