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How India Plans To Provide COVID-19 Vaccines To Its Population


India has nearly 1.4 billion people, and it faces the gargantuan task of vaccinating all of them against the coronavirus. Shots could start getting distributed as early as next week. And for details on how such a huge campaign is being organized, we're joined now by NPR India correspondent Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Hey, Lauren.


CHANG: OK. So this sounds like an absolutely massive undertaking. How exactly is this going to unfold?

FRAYER: So India is following roughly the same plan it uses for its elections. Indian elections are the biggest exercise of democracy in the world. Poll workers haul electronic voting machines up mountains, into tiny villages in the jungle. Well now, India is overseeing what may be the biggest vaccination campaign in the world. And it's using those voter rolls to identify people. Now, most of the vaccination sites will be hospitals and clinics, but they've also got these mobile vaccination teams to reach patients in far-flung areas.

CHANG: And I also understand that there is sort of these, like, practice runs happening. What have those been like?

FRAYER: Yeah. So even before we had a proven vaccine, India has been doing these training sessions. There was a big national rehearsal last weekend. There's another one tomorrow. And I talked to one of the organizers. Dr. Mangala Gomare is the executive health officer for Mumbai.

MANGALA GOMARE: Tomorrow, we have planned dry runs in three centers. We will have cold storage facilities at all the places. And we will really examine whether there are any shortcomings or gaps into this procedure.

FRAYER: And tomorrow, she's actually going to stand there with a stopwatch, timing how long it takes to administer the vaccine per person so she can then calculate how many people they can take per day.

CHANG: So when does the government think that everyone in India is actually going to get vaccinated?

FRAYER: Well, it's going to take a couple years for all 1.4 billion people to get this. And of course, it's voluntary. So not everybody might choose to get vaccinated. But the first shots are shipping out right now. And we're looking at people getting them mid next week. The plans are ambitious. India aims to inoculate at least 300 million people by July. So that's almost the entire population of the United States. And that timeline is way faster than countries with more money and less people.

CHANG: And where exactly is India getting more than a billion doses?

FRAYER: Right here at home. India is the world's biggest vaccine maker. It supplies a huge bulk of the medicines and vaccines needed in much of the world, particularly the developing world. There's a company called the Serum Institute, and its factory's a couple hours' drive inland from where I live here in Mumbai. And it's a family business. They signed a big deal to mass produce the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. And by next month, they expect to be churning out 100 million doses per month. Now, half of that will go to the domestic population in India. There are other vaccines being produced in India, but the AstraZeneca formula is really the one that India and most of the developing world actually will rely on.

CHANG: In many parts of the world - including here in the U.S. - there are people who are fearful of getting the vaccine. Are there similar fears you're seeing in India?

FRAYER: Not really. I mean, India has successfully eradicated polio and many other diseases through vaccination campaigns. So there's quite little vaccine hesitancy here. I mean, India has the second-highest COVID caseload in the world behind the U.S. Infections are way lower per capita, of course, and the numbers have dropped significantly in recent months. But, you know, this vaccine is very much needed and being celebrated here.

CHANG: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Thank you, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANORAAK'S "HERE YOU GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.