India delivers 1B COVID-19 vaccine doses as health officials hope worst of pandemic has passed

India has administered 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine, officials said Thursday, passing a milestone for the South Asian country where the delta variant fuelled its first crushing surge earlier this year.

About 75 per cent of India’s total eligible adult population have received at least one dose, while around 30 per cent are fully immunized. The country of nearly 1.4 billion people is the second to exceed a billion cumulative doses after the most populous country China did so in June.

Coronavirus cases have fallen sharply in India since the devastating months at the start of the year when the highly transmissible delta variant, first detected in the country a year ago, was infecting hundreds of thousands daily, sending COVID-19 patients into overwhelmed hospitals and filling cremation grounds.

Officials have bolstered the vaccination campaign in recent months, which experts say have helped control the outbreak since. The country began its drive in January.

Still, there remains a worrying gap between those who have received one shot and those fully immunized. Ramping up the second dose is “an important priority,” V K Paul, the head of the country’s COVID-19 taskforce, said at a briefing last week.

Devotees wait to enter a temple on Oct. 7 after it was reopened for the public in Mumbai, India. In recent months, life has swung back to normal and tourists can enter the country after a 19-month hiatus. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

“We would like to see this number go up. Complete coverage is absolutely critical,” Paul said.

India had earlier said it aimed to vaccinate all eligible adults by the end of the year, but experts say the current pace of the vaccination drive will need to increase to meet this goal.

Health workers celebrated

Officials plan to mark the milestone on Thursday at vaccination centres and hospitals where frontline and health care workers will be celebrated. The health minister will also launch a song and film to commemorate the achievement and an Indian flag will be hoisted at the historic Red Fort in the capital New Delhi, local media reported.

India, an important supplier of vaccines globally, halted exports in April as cases at home surged and only resumed exports earlier this month. The government is now optimistic that the country’s vaccine supply, which has seen a rise, will be enough to cover its international and domestic commitments.

Both of the two main suppliers have ramped up production, with the Serum Institute now producing around 220 million jabs a month and some 30 million from Bharat Biotech, Paul said.

Experts say the vaccine situation on the ground will need constant review. “There can be no written in stone rule — if infections rise drastically, they can again stop exports until there’s enough doses,” said K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.

A health worker inoculates a man during a vaccination drive against coronavirus inside a school in New Delhi, India on Wednesday. (Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press)

On Wednesday, India confirmed over 14,000 new cases of infection. Its active cases make up less than 1 per cent of its total caseload, now more than 34 million, including over 450,000 deaths, according to the health ministry.

Serological surveys done in June and July showed that over 60 per cent of the population had antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19, reducing the likelihood of another massive surge in the coming months, according to some experts.

WATCH | India’s COVID-19 cases surged last spring:

Coronavirus surges in India to highest numbers in three months

The CBC’s Salimah Shivji reports on the big spike in India’s COVID-19 cases and the difficulties of trying to encourage public health policies to curb the virus. 2:04

Even states where infections were swelling a few weeks ago, such as Kerala along the tropical Malabar coast, have seen a sustained decline.

“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 Reddy. “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,” he added.

Health workers walk in an alley in Chennai, India on Monday during a door-to-door vaccination drive against the Covid-19 coronavirus. (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent months, life in India has swung back to normal. Markets are buzzing with activity, tourists can enter the country after a 19-month hiatus and the country is gearing up to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

But there are fears this could be a lull before the storm. Even though India may have borne the brunt of the delta variant already, things could escalate quickly if a new variant emerges — either from within the country or outside.

“If the virus becomes different or mutates, it changes the dynamics. This could change everything,” said Paul.

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