New Delhi, India – As India continues to reel under a second – and more vicious – wave of coronavirus with an average of more than 90,000 cases being reported since April 1, a shortage of vaccines has added to the crisis.
From under 15,000 cases a day at the beginning of March, India on Friday reported its all-time high of 131,968 new COVID-19 cases – a record increase for a third straight day – pushing the country’s total infection tally to more than 13 million.
Daily infections surpassed 100,000 mark for the first time on Monday and have now exceeded that mark four times this week, marking the biggest daily rise in the world’s third-worst hit nation after the United States and Brazil.
Amid the record surge, many Indian states have reported running out of vaccines even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government continues to insist there is enough stock. India is the largest producer of vaccines and is known as the “pharmacy of the world”.
India started its vaccination programme in January but has been able to administer only 90 million shots in a population of more than 1.3 billion people, with most of them accounting for the first dose of a two-dose regime.
The country is currently in its third phase of vaccination, where those above 45 years of age are eligible to get the anti-COVID-19 shots.
‘They should go home’
The western state of Maharashtra, the pandemic’s current epicentre in India and home to financial capital Mumbai, issued a dire warning on Wednesday, saying supplies would run out in three days unless replenished.
“We are having to tell people that since vaccine supplies have not arrived, they should go home,” said state health minister Rajesh Tope.
Indian media reports said vaccination centres across India’s richest state were running out of doses, with healthcare workers turning people seeking inoculation away.
However, federal Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday said many states were trying to “distract attention from their failures and spread panic among the people”, calling allegations of shortages in Maharashtra “utterly baseless”.
But Maharashtra is not the only state reporting a shortage of vaccines. According to a Times of India newspaper report, 10 states have stocks that will last only three or four more days, including Uttar Pradesh, home to about 200 million people, as well as Odisha, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.
“We have hardly one-and-a-half-day’s stock and if we do not get any supply by day after tomorrow [Friday], we will [have to] stop the entire vaccination across the state” said Pradipta Mohapatra, the additional chief secretary of Odisha’s health and family welfare department.
Mohapatra told Al Jazeera over the telephone that Odisha, home to nearly 44 million people, vaccinated as much as 272,000 people a day but had to “step down because vaccines are not there”.
“We vaccinated only 110,000 people yesterday [Wednesday] while 700 vaccination centres were shut down on the day,” he said, adding that half the state’s vaccination centres are now closed.
Neighbouring Chhattisgarh’s Health Minister Tribhuvaneshwar Saran Singh Deo told Al Jazeera that his state had almost run out of vaccine stocks earlier this week and doses had to be rushed. But he added that the supplies would last only three days.
“We should be upfront and tell the country that the supply is limited and the vaccination drive will go on according to the supply of the vaccine and we are attempting to increase the manufacturing,” he said.
“This is what should be put up rather than saying that there is no dearth of vaccine.”
On Thursday, Jharkhand’s Health Minister Banna Gupta also said the state is short of COVID-19 vaccines and is only left with the stock that would last one to two days.
Dr Rajesh Bhaskar, COVID-19 nodal officer in Punjab state in the west, said they had 400,000 vaccine doses with them, a supply for three to four days.
Bhaskar said the regional government has requested the centre to send more vaccines and have been assured of an adequate number of doses.
“As of now, we are OK for the next three to four days,” Bhaskar said. “If we don’t receive supplies soon, we may be reaching that point [stopping the vaccination drive] but right now we don’t have to stop vaccination at any place.”
The southeastern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have also complained of vaccine shortage.
‘Why no strategy?’
Amid mounting concerns over the shortage, Prime Minister Modi on Thursday rejected calls from states to offer vaccinations to younger people, while Health Minister Vardhan said India had more than 43 million vaccine doses in stock or in the pipeline.
“It’s not that you can set up these big vaccine factories overnight,” Modi said in his address to the chief ministers of states via video conference. “Whatever production we have got, we will have to prioritise.”
“In our cities, a huge segment is poor or elderly… We should take them for vaccination and prioritise it,” Modi added.
Modi has proposed a “Tika Utsav” (Vaccination Festival) from April 11-14 to “vaccinate as many eligible people as possible and target zero-vaccine wastage”.
But the opposition parties have blamed Modi’s government for exporting 64.5 million vaccine doses while itself covering only a fraction of India’s 1.35 billion people.
“Why was there no strategy or planning put into the logistics of the vaccine programme?” the main opposition Congress party said on Twitter. “Why is there both extremely high wastage and an acute shortage of vaccines?”
BJP spokesman Syed Zafar Islam, without naming the opposition parties, said people “should not play politics on vaccine”.
“All I can say is that there is absolutely no issue as far as vaccines are concerned. It’s in abundance, it’s available and it has been time and again being clarified by the concerned ministry and the government that it’s available,” he said.
But Manish Tewari, a Congress leader and member of Indian Parliament, disagreed.
“Obviously states are articulating concern because there is shortage [of vaccines]. Nobody in his right mind in the middle of a pandemic is going to point out to a deficiency if it didn’t exist. It’s obviously because the deficiency exists that is why it’s being pointed out,” he told Al Jazeera.
Tewari said the government should suspend its vaccine diplomacy and inoculate every Indian, irrespective of age.
“[…] this vaccine diplomacy which they [Modi government] have undertaken and the 5.76 crore [more than 57 million] vaccine doses that they have exported to 71 countries … that process must be suspended temporarily and all the supplies need to be diverted and every Indian irrespective of age must be vaccinated as quickly as possible in order to mitigate the impact of the second wave,” he said.