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India kicks off ‘world’s largest’ vaccination campaign

India started inoculating health workers in what is likely the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Saturday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will launch the drive to bring the pandemic under control starting with two locally-manufactured shots.

Modi will address healthcare workers through video conferencing but will not immediately take the vaccine himself as India is initially prioritising nurses, doctors and others on the front line.

“This will be the world’s largest vaccination programme covering the entire length and breadth of the country,” Modi’s office said in a statement this week.

Indian authorities hope to give shots to 300 million people, roughly the population of the US and several times more than its existing programme that targets 26 million infants.

The first dose of a vaccine was administered to a health worker at All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital New Delhi, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted the campaign with a nationally televised speech.

The country is home to the world’s largest vaccine makers and has one of the biggest immunisation programmes. But there is no playbook for the enormity of the challenge.

India, the world’s most populous country after China, has said it may not need to vaccinate all of its 1.35 billion people to create herd immunity.

Beneficiaries, however, will not be able to choose between the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine and a government-backed, homegrown one from Bharat Biotech whose efficacy is not known. Both are being produced locally.

India, which has reported the highest number of coronavirus infections after the United States, wants to vaccinate around 300 million people with two doses in the first six to eight months of the year.

Some 10.5 million people in India have been infected with the coronavirus, more than 151,000 of whom have died, though the rate of cases has come down since a mid-September peak.

First to get the vaccine will be 30 million health and other frontline workers, such as those in sanitation and security, followed by about 270 million people older than 50 or deemed high-risk because of pre-existing medical conditions.

Modi, 70, has said politicians will not be considered frontline workers.

On Saturday, he is also expected to formally inaugurate the government’s online platform Co-WIN that will provide information on vaccine stocks, storage temperature and keep track of beneficiaries.

The government has already bought 11 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVISHIELD shot, produced by the Serum Institute of India, and 5.5 million of Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN.

COVISHIELD is 72% effective, according to the Indian drug regulator, while Bharat Biotech says COVAXIN’s last-stage trial results are expected by March.

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