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India’s Covid-19 tide worsens as nation stumbles on vaccine expansion



Expanding the vaccination campaign in India for all adults is badly hampered, with many saying they can’t book appointments and countries reporting a shortage of vaccines.

As the country grapples with the world’s fastest-growing coronavirus tide, the South Asian nation is opening a vaccination on Saturday for anyone over the age of 18, covering about 900 million people. But many Indians who have watched helplessly as friends and relatives have contracted Covid-19 in recent weeks will not be able to get them.

“The spread of the vaccine is already a nightmare,” said Dr Amir Ulah Khan, director of research at the Center for Policy and Development, a think tank based in Hyderabad. “It’s no secret that we have finished deliveries.”

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The state of Maharashtra, home of the financial capital Mumbai, will not receive fresh stocks of vaccines until May 20, the health minister said this week. Mumbai closed its vaccination centers for three days on Friday due to a shortage of vaccines, authorities said.

The states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are running out of vaccines, health officials said during a joint news conference on Sunday. The Minister of Health in Karnataka, home of the Bengaluru Technology Center, on Friday called on everyone under the age of 45 to avoid overcrowding hospitals over the weekend because stocks are low.

Mumbai Vaccination Center on Thursday. The city closed the centers on Friday for three days due to a shortage of vaccines.


Photo:

Fariha Farouki / Getty images

India has some of the worst challenges in the world in vaccinating a country of more than 1.3 billion people with huge rural populations. The country also has advantages, with experience in conducting large vaccination drives and some of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world. She had set a goal of vaccinating 300 million people by August.

However, only about 1.8% of the population has been vaccinated so far, and the program has become urgent as the virus has spread across the country.

On Friday, India set a new world record of 386,452 new daily cases. Deaths increased by 3,498, bringing the total to 208,330.

Without vaccines on the horizon, many say they are losing hope.

“People want to get vaccinated. We are desperate in this situation, “said Hasiba Amin, a 30-year-old social media coordinator in New Delhi.

But even registering on the official government portal, the first step before booking an appointment proved difficult. It took at least a day because the system continued to crash or freeze, she said. And when I scrolled through the calendar, there were no appointments for people under the age of 45, she said.

Ms Amin said she had become so discouraged that she could not imagine the pandemic slowing down any time soon. “It was disappointing and very disappointing,” she said.

The United States and other countries are intervening to help as new cases of coronavirus in India continue to set daily records. The crisis there underscores how a country’s tide could have ripple effects in the global battle against the pandemic. Photo: Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Nandhita Ravindran, 25, in Chennai, was one of the few lucky ones who managed to make meetings for herself, her sister and her partner. It was a Byzantine process, she said, which caused a great deal of panic and anxiety for all she knew. Then on Friday, Mrs Ravindran received a new message: Her meeting had been canceled.

“I am so irritated and exhausted by this process,” she said.

Ms. Ravindran said she found registration confusing even as a relatively privileged person with access to the Internet and resources. “I can’t understand the state of most of the country,” she added.

Some blame the problems on poor planning and heavy bureaucracy in Delhi. The central government is now shifting some of the campaign responsibility to state governments, allowing them to buy vaccines directly from manufacturers, but the registration system is still controlled by Delhi. Online registration can also restrict access to meetings for many people in rural areas or without internet access.

For months, India has been a major exporter of Covid-19 vaccines to other countries, as its own cases remain low. But as numbers soared, India nearly halted exports last month to divert supplies to its domestic population.

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Local vaccine manufacturers, the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, collectively dispose of about 70 million to 80 million doses per month. Five Indian manufacturers have also signed deals to produce Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. But vaccine manufacturers trying to increase production are hampered by a shortage of raw materials.

A spokesman for the Serum Institute said the company was aiming to increase production to 100 million doses by July, but declined to comment on the current shortage. Bharat Biotech did not respond to a request for comment.

A man argued with a policewoman on Thursday as he waited with others for a vaccine in Mumbai, disappointed.


Photo:

Rajanish Kakade / Associated Press

Other countries are intervening to help. The United States has said it will provide medical supplies and raw materials for India’s vaccine production. The United Kingdom, Germany and France have pledged aid. India is due to receive the first batch of the Russian vaccine on May 1.

Even if production has risen sharply, public health experts say most countries do not have refrigeration or distribution networks to effectively inoculate remnants of the population. Many vaccination centers are already closed after supplies are exhausted.

Dr Hahn said there were no doses for private health clinics in Hyderabad, where he lives. “This has happened all over the country,” he said.

Many Indians, who received their first photos with relative ease, say finding the second dose has proved virtually impossible.

Shivendra Bisht, a 43-year-old software developer in Utarakhand, said he managed to take his mother to a clinic without a reservation for her first shot in April. But when he tried to book her second dose for May, he saw no appointments until August.

“I’m very worried,” he said.

Many friends and relatives, even those who were extremely cautious, have fallen ill in recent weeks, he said. Mr Bisht is currently in quarantine at home after helping a friend move the body of his mother, who may have died of Covid-19, to a crematorium. She had not left the house in years and was still infected, he said.

If the meetings do not open, Mr Bisht said he could try to take his mother to a clinic anyway. But this would have its own dangers.

His cousin and another acquaintance fell ill with Covid-19 shortly after receiving their first photos. They are suspected of being infected, he said, in crowded vaccination clinics.

People arrived to be vaccinated at a center in Mumbai, only to see a sign reading “No vaccine stocks available.”


Photo:

Subhash Sharma / Zuma Press

Write to Shang Li at shan.li@wsj.com

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