India administers more than one billion Covid vaccine doses after slow start to rollout

A health worker administers a dose of Covaxin Covid-19 vaccine at a health centre in Garia, India. Credit: AP

India celebrated giving its billionth Covid-19 vaccine dose on Thursday, as the country marked turning around its health fortunes after a sluggish start to its inoculation campaign.

Around half of the country's 1.4 billion people have now received at least one coronavirus vaccine, with a fifth fully inoculated, according to figures compiled by Our World in Data.

The impressive statistics stand in contrast to the high infection rates seen in the middle of the year when jab shortages helped leave swathes of the population dangerously exposed to the virus.

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On Thursday, India, the world's second most populous country, confirmed more than 18,400 new cases and 160 deaths- dramatically below the worst days in May when daily deaths exceeded 4,000.

Vaccine manufacturers stepping up output has been credited for much of the turnaround.

Both of the two main suppliers have ramped up production, with the Serum Institute of India now producing around 220 million doses a month and Bharat Biotech about 30 million.

The south Asian country also widened the gap between shots from 12 to 16 weeks in order to administer more first doses at a time when supply was limited and infections were soaring.

India is using vaccines that require two doses.

Ramping up the second dose is “an important priority,” V.K. Paul, the head of the country’s Covid-19 taskforce, said. “We would like to see this number go up. Complete coverage is absolutely critical."

The decision to halt exports in April as cases surged at home had a devastating impact on poorer countries that relied on doses from India.

But the government, which resumed exports earlier this month, is now optimistic that the country’s rising vaccine supply will allow it to meet its international and domestic commitments.

India had aimed to vaccinate all eligible adults by the end of the year, but experts say the current pace of immunisations will need to increase to meet this target.

They warn that India must speed up the delivery of second shots in order to ensure an outbreak doesn’t flare up again.

Candles in the shape of the Indian map to celebrate the country administering 1 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine in Ahmedabad, India. Credit: AP

“There is a sense of comfort that India has suffered the worst of the delta variant, but this must be accompanied with a feeling of caution,” said K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.

“Even if cases go up, we are unlikely to see the scale of the surge earlier- if that does happen, it would be fairly unexpected.”

The first country to reach the 1 billion shot milestone was China- the world's most populous.