Indian experts urge faster inoculations ahead of free COVID-19 shots

Shopkeepers wait to open their stores at a market area after authorities eased lockdown restrictions that were imposed to slow down the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, June 7, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
  • Federal government is taking over inoculation programme
  • PM Modi plans free COVID-19 shots for all adults
  • Experts welcome plans but want faster vaccinations

BENGALURU, June 8 (Reuters) - Indian officials and health experts welcomed a federal government plan to give free COVID-19 shots to all adults as a step in the right direction on Tuesday, but cautioned that vaccinations must be accelerated to prevent new surges in infections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Monday the federal government would take over the inoculation programme from Indian states and offer free doses to everyone over the age of 18.

His announcement on national television followed weeks of criticism of a vaccine rollout that has covered fewer than 5% of India's estimated adult population of 950 million. This has left the country vulnerable to another wave of infections after a surge in April-May which government data showed killed 170,000.

"Took him 4 months but after much pressure, he has finally listened to us and implemented what we've been asking all this while," Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state, wrote on Twitter.

India has been giving an average of 2.4 million shots a day. Health officials say this is far from adequate for a country as large as India.

"We need to vaccinate 7-8 million persons per day to meet the target of covering all the eligible persons before the end of December," Giridhara Babu, a member of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country's main health research agency, told Reuters.

Babu is part of the national taskforce's working group on epidemiology and surveillance.

Daily infections have fallen and officials aim to switch the focus to mass vaccinations. India reported 86,498 new cases overnight, the lowest number in over two months and a sharp drop from a peak of around 400,000 a day in May. read more

India has been inoculating its people with AstraZeneca (AZN.L) shots produced at the Serum Institute of India, and Covaxin made by Indian firm Bharat Biotech. It is set to commercially launch Russia's Sputnik V in mid-June.

One reason for the low coverage is that supplies are tight. At Delhi's Sir Ganga Ram hospital, there are no supplies of AstraZeneca, a hospital executive said.

Authorities in Delhi have asked hospitals to stop giving the first dose of home-produced Covaxin to people aged from 18 to 44 and focus instead on the elderly until supplies improve, a spokesperson of the party governing the city said.

Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Kim Coghill

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