The government plans to provide Covid vaccines to around 25 crore (250 million) people - of the country's 130 crore (1.3 billion) - by July 2021, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan said Sunday afternoon. Dr Vardhan said the government would receive between 400 and 500 million vaccine doses for this purpose and that it would ensure "equitable access".
The Health Minister also said that state and UT governments had been advised to send details of "priority population groups" - a reference to frontline health workers (both government and private-sector employees), who will be first in line to receive the vaccine - by the end of October.
"Vaccine procurement is being done centrally and each consignment will be tracked in real time. Priority will be given to frontline health care workers," Dr Vardhan said in the fourth edition of "Sunday Samvad", his weekly social media interaction with the public.
"The government is offering full support to Indian vaccine manufacturers and is committed to taking all measures to ensure equitable access to the vaccine," he added.
Dr Vardhan's comment on vaccines (and access to them) comes as several candidate drugs enter the final phase of testing and trials. Three potential vaccines are being tested in India, including Covishield which was developed jointly by the University of Oxford and pharma giant AstraZeneca.
Covishield is in Phase 2 and Phase 3 human trials and, if successful, will be mass produced by Adar Poonawalla's Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's largest manufacturer of vaccines by volume.
A UK media report earlier this month said Covishield, which is also being tested there, could be cleared by health regulators in that country by end-2020 and be rolled out within six months.
Last week Mr Poonawalla took to Twitter to highlight challenges in vaccine production and distribution. In his "quick question" to the government he asked if the Health Ministry had Rs 80,000 crore available over the next 12 months to buy and distribute the vaccine to everyone.
"I ask this question, because we need to plan and guide, vaccine manufacturers both in India and overseas to service the needs of our country in terms of procurement and distribution," he said.
Quick question; will the government of India have 80,000 crores available, over the next one year? Because that's what @MoHFW_INDIA needs, to buy and distribute the vaccine to everyone in India. This is the next concerning challenge we need to tackle. @PMOIndia— Adar Poonawalla (@adarpoonawalla) September 26, 2020
In July, when Mr Poonawalla spoke to NDTV, he suggested Covishield would cost around Rs 1,000 per dose. He also said India would get around 30 million doses per month and that it could take up to two years for the entire country to be inoculated.
Days later, according to news agency Reuters, the SII said it would manufacture 200 million additional doses for poorer countries, including India, after funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The government hit back after Mr Poonawalla's tweet, saying that it did not agree with the Rs 80,000 crore figure and that it had sufficient funds to procure and distribute the vaccine. The government did not, however, specify the amount that it had set aside for this purpose.
Nevertheless, as a Bloomberg report pointed out last month, there are concerns over storage and delivery barriers in the country, particularly with sections of the population in remote rural and mountainous areas.
During his Independence Day speech in August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that when a viable vaccine was ready the government had a plan to ensure that it reached every Indian.
Dr Vardhan has said the government plans to use the Universal Immunisation Program (UIP) - which was introduced in India in 1978 as the Expanded Programme of Immunisation and covers all districts in a phased manner - to distribute the vaccine.
In addition to Covishield, other vaccine candidates are also being tested across the country. Indigenous vaccine developers Bharat Biotech are in Phase 2 trials with COVAXIN and Zydus Cadila is waiting to receive approvals for Phase 3 clinical trials for its vaccine.
India is the second worst-affected country in the world and, if the current trend of daily cases continues, is likely to overtake the United States to become the worst-affected. The country has logged over 65 lakh Covid cases since the outbreak began in China's Wuhan in December last year.
The US, the worst-affected country, has 73.8 lakh cases but has been recording fewer daily cases than India for several days now; government data this morning showed India logged over 75,000 new cases in the past 24 hours.
With input from Reuters, PTI