India’s Covid Vaccine Rate Dropped Sharply In May Despite Opening Up To More People
A health worker administers a dose of Covid-19 vaccine at the heath center in the village of Bazrak, Uttar Pradesh, on May 17, 2021. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)

India’s Covid Vaccine Rate Dropped Sharply In May Despite Opening Up To More People

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India's Covid-19 inoculation drive sputtered and slowed in May even as the country opened up vaccinations for all its adult population.

The country administered a total of 5.53 crore vaccine shots in May, compared to 7.75 crore doses in April—a drop of 28.7% from the previous month, according to data compiled from the government's CoWin dashboard. Even the daily average vaccination number fell to 17.8 lakh from 25.8 lakh in April, when a lot fewer people were eligible for the shots.

The central government had allowed all adults above 18 years of age to be get vaccinated from May 1. The expectation was that this would massively improve vaccine coverage at a time when the deadly second wave of the virus was ravaging through the country and resulting in mass deaths. However, a shortage of doses only resulted in dwindling overall vaccination numbers.

Starting May 1, India’s central government deployed a new vaccine policy that involves dual procurement for states. Indian vaccine manufacturers are to provide up to 50% of their supply to the centre and can sell the remaining 50% to states and private players in the open market.

States now receive vaccines from two channels:

Free doses from the central government to vaccinate those aged 45 and above as well as healthcare and frontline workers. States and private hospitals also procure doses directly from domestic vaccine manufacturers to vaccinate the population aged 18-44 years—but the allocation is decided by the central government.

All of this only served to further confound a situation already beyond short term repair due to supply shortages.

Still, there was a visible improvement towards the end of May. The country averaged over 20 lakh vaccinations a day in the last week of May. Prior to that, it was around 16 lakh a day.

Some of India's most populous states saw their vaccination numbers fall in May even as they scuttled to buy more doses from the two manufacturers while also navigating through operational challenges.

In early May, due to a shortage, several states diverted their own procurements towards time-bound delivery of second jabs to those above 45 years. As a result, vaccination of the younger group is either on pause in some states or moving at snail’s pace in others.

Maharashtra and Rajasthan were hit the most with both states seeing their total vaccination numbers almost halve from April. Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal also saw significant drops.

A Better June In Sight

That said, the situation is likely to improve if future supply numbers are anything to go by. According to the union health ministry, states will receive almost 12 crore vaccine doses in June—a 50.6% increase over May.

Some of this predicated on expanded capacities at the two domestic producers, Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. Part of this improved supply will come via imports of Russia's Sputnik V. Indian pharma major Dr. Reddy’s is pilot testing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and hopes to scale up imported supply soon. Sputnik V will also be manufactured domestically.

The supply situation could improve further with Indian states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand having floated global tenders looking to procure Covid-19 vaccines from foreign manufacturers. Chances are slim as the global vaccine supply is also running short.

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