As hopes for an early arrival of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 rise, experts caution that logistical problems could threaten the Indian government's efforts to swiftly carry out a mass vaccination drive.
Vaccinating over 1.3 billion people against COVID-19 is a mammoth task. India hopes to receive up to 500 million doses of coronavirus vaccines by July next year to inoculate about 250 million people, according to the Health Ministry.
Given the daunting and unprecedented challenge of vaccinating such a huge population in a short time span, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held several meetings with pharmaceutical company executives and heads of state governments to chalk out the way forward.
In his meetings with pharma majors over the weekend, Modi asked for suggestions on how to carry out the ambitious vaccine rollout.
"It was suggested they [pharmas] should take extra effort to inform the general public in simple language about the vaccine. Matters relating to logistics, transport, cold chain were discussed," said a statement from the prime minister's office.
Modi has repeatedly emphasized the importance of a vaccine to rein in COVID-19. In October, he said that the government was preparing to reach every single citizen as soon as a vaccine was ready.
On Tuesday, however, senior government officials said that India may not need to vaccinate all of its 1.3 billion people if it manages to inoculate a critical mass and break the virus' transmission.
World Health Organization experts have pointed to a 65-70% vaccine coverage rate as sufficient to reach population immunity.
'Transparency is paramount'
Ensuring that the vaccine reaches everyone who needs it would involve many factors, say public health experts and virologists. The choices of vaccines, distribution, identifying groups for early vaccination, storage and more importantly, trained personnel, all play a role, the experts underline.
"When authorities start vaccinating, transparency in how the vaccine is going to be administered is paramount. People, especially those in rural India, need to know what they are getting and who will give them the jab," Shahid Jameel, epidemiologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences, told DW.
"Unlike the polio vaccine which required two drops to be given, this is more complex and delicate which involves trained personnel. It has to be followed by a booster shot a month later," Jameel added.
Vaccine protection is normally expected to kick in only 10 days after receiving the second booster injection.
For now, the government hopes to rope in its nearly 240,000-strong vaccinators from its Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) to manage the logistics of administering COVID vaccines.
The UIP, managed by the Health Ministry, covers 25 million children every year, inoculating them against a range of diseases including measles, polio, and tuberculosis.