Neighbour India is preparing to launch the world’s largest inoculation campaign after its drugs regulatory authority gave the green light to the anti-COVID-19 jabs developed by AstraZeneca with Oxford University and by local firm Bharat Biotech over the weekend.
The preparations are staggering but India at first glance appears to be taking it in stride by tapping its existing inoculation infrastructure to reach some 300 million people over the next two months. Vaccine distribution was seen as urgent since India has recorded the second-highest number of infections in the world, with more than 10.3 million confirmed cases to date. Nearly 150,000 people have died.
On Saturday India held nationwide drills to prepare more than 90,000 health care workers to administer vaccines across the country, which has a population of 1.3 billion people. India also got ahead in the vaccine race by mass producing the AstraZeneca vaccine before it received regulatory approval and also using local firm Bharat Biotech to make its own version. The latter, produced by the Serum Institute, has done landmark work over the years, producing over a billion doses of various vaccines to be used mostly in developing countries.
The efforts being made by the Indian Government are not just impressive but underscore the amount of work that governments will have to undertake to inoculate their populations. India has also demonstrated that being a democracy could give it a leg up in the vaccination race because in addition to the healthcare infrastructure it is also using election registries and polling booths to scale up its vaccination drives. Voter registries are being used to identify and trace high risk citizens and an army of officials on the ground are preparing to herd people to polling booths, ideal for their access, to get jabbed.
Bharat Biotech has also agreed to provide the vaccines to the Indian Government at a vastly reduced $2 per shot, which could increase to as much as $13 when it comes to the market for private use later in the year. The arrangements being made by the Indian Government give a glimpse into the level of preparation and planning that would be needed for Sri Lanka’s own vaccine drive albeit at a much, much smaller scale.
According to the latest updates, Sri Lankan health officials are still weighing their options with a discussion recently being held to gather information on the Sputnik V vaccine being produced by Russia. However, so far officials have only indicated that vaccinations of high risk individuals could begin sometime in the first half, very likely utilising the vaccines to be made available by the World Health Organisation (WHO). But these will only cover 20% of Sri Lanka’s population with WHO recommendations indicating that 60% of the country would need to be inoculated to reach herd immunity.
So not only will Sri Lanka have to weigh its options, it may also have to work hard to move ahead in the long line of countries awaiting vaccines. It is therefore critical that the Sri Lankan Government continue to enforce social distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines, particularly given the uptick of increased travel due to the festive season and when the decision to procure vaccinations is made that it be done in a transparency and inclusive manner.