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India's Vaccination Drive Has Gathered Speed, But Millions Remain Vulnerable

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

India has broken a vaccine record with more than 25 million COVID-19 shots administered today alone. India is the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, but this past spring, as a devastating coronavirus outbreak hit the country, India ran out of COVID-19 vaccines. It halted exports and prioritized its own population. Now new cases there have plateaued. The country's vaccination drive is accelerating. Sushmita Pathak reports from Mumbai.

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: Many times over the past month, this is what TV news in India sounded like.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And there's breaking news just coming in. This is great news. India has achieved a historic vaccine milestone...

PATHAK: A vaccine milestone. Since the vaccination drive began in January, India has given more than 750 million shots, nearly twice as many as the U.S. That's despite a huge vaccine shortage this past spring, when demand spiked and vaccine production and supply chains couldn't keep up. Now more than half of India's adults have received at least one COVID-19 shot.

PRIYA BALASUBRAMANIAM: That is quite extraordinary.

PATHAK: Dr. Priya Balasubramaniam is a public health scientist. She says if vaccinations continue at the same pace, around 30% of Indians could be fully vaccinated by the end of the year.

BALASUBRAMANIAM: But we still have a long way to go.

PATHAK: India's population is massive - nearly 1.4 billion - out of which, less than 15% have got two shots. That means the virus still has the potential to infect hundreds of millions of unvaccinated people. Twenty-eight-year-old Janaki Budha is one of them. She works as a maid in Mumbai.

JANAKI BUDHA: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: I've been trying to get vaccinated for three months, Budha says. Every time she goes to her local government-run vaccine center, there's a long line. Sometimes she can't afford to wait and miss work. One time, the center ran out of vaccines by the time her turn came. The only option left, she says, is a private hospital where she'll have to pay around $10 per shot.

BUDHA: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: That amount is a lot for me, she says. She's trying to get vaccinated now when new cases are low. Most of the country has opened up. But Indians will have to remain cautious over the next few months, says Dr. Tarun Bhatnagar, a senior scientist at India's National Institute of Epidemiology.

TARUN BHATNAGAR: It's going to be a testing time, I think, now we have the festival season.

PATHAK: A series of religious festivals over the next few months could cause a spike in infections, as holiday shoppers crowd markets and people gather in large numbers to celebrate.

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PATHAK: A big Hindu festival is underway in Mumbai, and crowds have been flouting social distancing norms. The epidemiologist, Bhatnagar, says in the coming months, India will have to watch out for new variants of the coronavirus and monitor local clusters of infections.

BHATNAGAR: We need to be on our toes in terms of preventing crowding and increasing vaccination. Those are the only two ways.

PATHAK: And India's vaccination drive has implications beyond its borders. India is a major supplier to the global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX, but hasn't shipped any doses since spring, leaving many lower-income countries in the lurch. Now, as more and more Indians get vaccinated, the pressure is growing on India to resume exports.

For NPR news, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.