India will provide free COVID-19 vaccines to all adults, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Monday, in an effort to rein in a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and led to the world’s second-highest tally of infections.
Modi’s announcement on national television came after weeks of criticism of a bungled vaccine rollout that has covered fewer than five per cent of India’s estimated adult population of 950 million.
Health experts have warned that vaccination is the only way to protect lives from another wave of infections after a surge in April-May overwhelmed hospitals in the big cities and in the vast hinterland.
Modi said the federal government would take over the vaccination program from the states on June 21, reversing a policy under which states were running a part of it.
“Whether it is the poor, the lower middle class, the middle class, or the upper middle class, under the federal government program, every one will get free vaccines,” he said.
The changes reverse a policy launched in April that tasked states and the private sector with vaccinating those between the ages of 18 and 44. The federal government gave free shots to people over 45 years of age and front-line workers. State governments found themselves competing against each other to procure vaccines from local manufacturers as well as foreign firms with little luck.
The federal government will now procure 75 per cent of all vaccines directly from the manufacturers and provide them to the states for free, while the remaining 25 per cent will be purchased by the private sector.
India has been inoculating its people with the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, produced locally by the Serum Institute of India, and Covaxin, made by local firm Bharat Biotech. It will commercially launch Russia’s Sputnik V shots by mid-June.
Modi said the government would allow private hospitals to have 25 per cent of all vaccine supplies but they cannot charge more than 150 rupees (just over $2 US) over the cost of the dose.
But those who seek a shot at a government facility will get their vaccine for free, local media reported.
The new policy should help move things faster, an expert said.
“This [centralized inoculation policy] eliminates states having to compete with one another for vaccine supplies, leaving them to concentrate on distributing them rapidly to their populations,” said Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University in Delhi.
Overnight, India reported 100,636 new COVID-19 infections, the lowest in the world’s second-most populous nation since April 6, and well off last month’s peaks of more than 400,000, allowing authorities to reopen parts of the economy.