While there is some light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the presence of COVID-19 vaccines, the job is far from complete. The distribution of the vaccine has its own challenges. However, India has prior experience with large-scale vaccination programs. India’s Universal Immunization Programme (UIP), which immunizes approximately 26.7 million new-borns and 29 million pregnant women annually against 12 vaccine-preventable diseases, is one of the largest public health programs globally. It also achieved two major milestones, with the eradication of polio in 2014 and maternal and neonatal tetanus elimination in 2015.
India launched the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination program on January 16, 2021, and has so far administered 25 million doses covering approximately 1.4% of the population compared to 34% in the UK and 29% in the US as of March 11, 2021. Also, India has so far exported approximately 58 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, which considering India’s manufacturing potential and the fact that the country fulfills 50% of the global demand for various types of vaccines, is certainly not where you would expect it to be. The COVID-19 vaccination rates and export figures clearly suggest India’s need to strengthen its game in distribution within the country and export vaccines to the rest of the world. But less than two months into the rollout, India is making significant progress, from roping in around 10,600 private facilities, providing vaccines 24×7 to easy registration, free vaccination for the poor, and affordable pricing.
The biggest challenge for successful immunization will be the distribution and administration of vaccines across India once there are enough doses produced. The government needs to implement multiple innovative ways to make vaccines easily accessible. “Decentralization of vaccination” is paramount for increasing coverage in urban areas and reach rural India. There is a need to adopt strongly consider moving out of the hospital set up and take a lead from countries like the US, UK, Israel, and UAE. There are various successful models which India can replicate such as drive-through centers, building temporary vaccination camps, roping in large pharmacy retail chains, and private healthcare clinics. Mobile health clinics can play a very important in rural areas, which lack the necessary health facilities. The drive-through vaccination and camps, followed aggressively by Israel and UAE have come in for rave reviews. The final frontier in the distribution model would be vaccination at home.
“Mobilization” will increase convenience and in turn help overcome the reluctance to take the vaccine. This would not only relieve the stress from the limited private and government hospitals and avoid over-crowding but will also prevent delays in other health services. This would not be easy considering the supply-chain requirements and supply-demand mismatch at the vaccination sites. However, the government needs to plan and take steps to maximize coverage and minimize wastage. Also, all these arrangements will be only worthwhile if we have enough doses to administer through these sites. The biggest question remains – Will “Made in India” vaccine supplies be enough to inoculate the entire population considering India is also exporting the vaccine? Although India has the necessary local manufacturing capabilities and exports are vital for equitable distribution, economy, and vaccine diplomacy, it shouldn’t impact the availability of vaccines to be distributed in the country.
India has already received accolades for its strategies in containing the spread of COVID-19 and vaccine manufacturing capabilities. Innovative approaches from the government can lead the way in making this the world’s largest successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign and create history in the process.