India accelerates COVID-19 vaccine production in bid to avoid another wave

India’s Serum Institute will increase production of the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine by nearly 40 per cent in June, officials said on Monday, in a key step toward alleviating a shortage that has worsened the country’s battle with the illness.

The world’s second most-populous nation has struggled with a catastrophic outbreak of COVID-19 since last month, which is only now starting to abate after killing tens of thousands of people.

Government officials and experts say the only way India can avoid a third wave of infections is by vaccinating most of its 1.3 billion people.

The Serum Institute of India will boost production of the AstraZeneca shot from about 65 million doses a month now to 90 million doses in June, a company spokesperson told Reuters.

Most of the shots administered in India are AstraZeneca, but local firm Bharat Biotech also plans to ramp up production of its Covaxin vaccine to 23 million doses in June, up from about 10 million in April, a government official said.

12% have had 1st shot

Only about three per cent of India’s population is fully vaccinated and about 12 per cent have got the first shot and are waiting for the second. State governments, including in the capital Delhi, have reported an acute shortage of vaccines and some are inoculating only the elderly and front-line workers.

A woman wearing a face mask walks past an effigy of coronavirus at a market in Jammu, India, on Monday. (Channi Anand/The Associated Press)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced criticism for donating vaccines to neighbouring countries and further afield early this year as part of a diplomatic initiative.

“The very possibility of a second wave was not considered serious enough, and all aspects of the pandemic response bore the brunt, including vaccination,” the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation said in a report on the vaccine rollout on Monday.

India reported its lowest daily rise in new coronavirus infections since April 11 on Monday at 152,734 cases over the past 24 hours, while deaths rose by 3,128.

The South Asian nation’s tally of infections over the course of the pandemic now stands at 28 million, while the death toll has reached 329,100, Health Ministry data showed.

South, northeastern states remain a concern

Most experts believe the coronavirus infections and deaths are considerably undercounted. The New York Times said the most conservative estimate of deaths was 600,000 and the worst-case scenario several times that number. The government has dismissed the assessments as absolutely false.

A family member prays after performing the last rites of a person who died due to COVID-19 at a crematorium in Jammu, India, on Monday. (Channi Anand/The Associated Press)

Dr. Randeep Guleria, the head of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences based in New Delhi, said the pandemic is slowing in large parts of the country but is not contained.

“We seem to be past the peak, but there is a certain level of concern about the south and northeastern states,” he said, which highlights the need for increased vaccinations.

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine will also be launched in the Indian market next month, according to its local partner, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories.

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