By Eric Bellman and Vibhuti Agarwal
NEW DELHI—India’s Covid-19 vaccinations have run into early problems as fewer people than anticipated have been showing up for their shots, putting the country far behind the pace it needs to hit its target of inoculating 300 million by August.
The lower-than-expected turnout appears to be due to both technical problems with the app that notifies people when it is their turn for a shot and fears over the safety of vaccines that were developed and approved on an accelerated timetable.
The country had given around 1.5 million people their first shots as of Saturday, a week after launching the effort. That is an average of about 200,000 a day. It would need to administer 1.3 million a day to reach its August target.
India has more government vaccination-drive experience and manufacturing capacity than most countries, and it had cautioned that the campaign would start slowly. But in the first week, more than 40% fewer people showed up for shots than had been anticipated.
Government officials say they are still working out the bottlenecks, but the low early turnout among health-care workers—the first to be offered the vaccine—suggests a much longer timeline than expected to protect the population through vaccinations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked doctors on Friday for help reassuring people to speed up the inoculations. “In the making of any vaccine, there’s the hard work of our scientists and a fully scientific process,” so there is nothing to fear, he said.
Some health-care workers say they are still worried that there may be side effects that haven’t emerged, as the vaccines haven’t been widely used or tested. Some said they have had the coronavirus and expect to be protected by their immune systems.
“Ignorance is the breeding ground for hesitancy,” and many people aren’t confident about the two vaccines, which have been rushed to market, said T. Jacob John, a retired professor of virology at the Christian Medical College in the southern city of Vellore. “The epidemic is at its lowest level now when the vaccine has been rolled out, so people are asking, ‘What’s the hurry?’ ”
India has been one of the places hardest hit by the pandemic, with more than 10 million confirmed infected and 150,000 deaths, but its infection rate has plunged from a high near 100,000 a day in September to less than 20,000 a day in recent weeks.
Nurse Jeemol Shaji, who has been administering the shots in a New Delhi hospital, said that on the first days around 30 out of 100 people scheduled went in for shots. She has had to throw away leftover doses that have gone unused.
The government app for registering and notifying people of the vaccination slots has had some technical problems, according to the government and those administering the shots. The problems include delays in notifying people of their appointments. Ms. Shaji said the hospital has started accepting walk-ins.
She said she has confidence the shots work but doesn’t plan to get one immediately herself because she has recovered from the virus.
“I still have antibodies,” she said. “What is the use of getting vaccinated at this point?”
Sunil Arora, a doctor and general secretary of New Delhi’s Federation of Resident Doctors Association, said health-care professionals need to set an example but that many of them are worried about the fast approval of the vaccines.
“People are adopting a wait-and-watch approach,” he said. “They are observing other people who have received the jab to see if there are any side effects.”
India has given emergency approval to a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca PLC and Oxford University, as well as a local vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech. Health-care workers said they are reluctant to take the local vaccine, as it had gone through less testing before being approved.
The AstraZeneca vaccine has completed Phase 3 trials and has been approved in a handful of countries in addition to India, including the U.K. It hasn’t received approval in the U.S. Bharat Biotech hasn’t completed Phase 3 trials. It’s Phase 1 trial results were published in the Lancet medical journal last week.
India’s Health Ministry says it has seen enough data on both vaccines to be confident they are safe and effective.
The government is releasing a tally of any sicknesses recorded in those who have been vaccinated, in an effort to boost confidence in their safety. As of Saturday, the government had recorded 11 hospitalizations and six deaths. Autopsies found that none of the deaths were linked to the vaccinations.
The government has been promoting the safety and importance of the vaccines in speeches and advertisements. Prime Minister Modi and others have been telling Indians not to worry. The Ministry of Health has been bombarding social media with snippets from India’s leading doctors about the safety of the vaccines.
“Vaccines enabled India to win the battle against polio and smallpox,” read one government tweet. “Take your shot, defeat Covid-19.”
Cellphone users hear a government public-service announcement before their calls connect, urging them to get vaccinated and not to trust rumors.
The hundreds of thousands of people who have gone through government training to be part of the process are being taught to promote a positive view of vaccines in their interactions with family and on social media.
Indians are more accepting of vaccines in general than people in other countries, polls have shown. In an October survey of 15 countries, Indians were the most likely to say they were ready to take a Covid-19 vaccine once available. The Ipsos survey showed that 88% of Indians said they were ready, compared with 65% of Americans and 85% of people in China.
“Manufacturers and governments need to stand behind the vaccines they are providing to the people and assure people that these vaccines are safe,” said Deepak Baid, a physician in charge of a Covid-19 unit in a government hospital in Mumbai.
SOURCE : WALL STREET JOURNAL