New Delhi: India, one among the forerunners to find a potential vaccine for COVID-19, has started identifying priority groups, including health workers, to distribute the first doses under a special immunisation programme.
Once available, the government will be distributing the vaccine under the special COVID-19 immunisation programme with the Centre procuring the doses directly and making it available for priority groups.
According to officials, the Centre will directly make the vaccine available to the priority groups free-of-charge through the existing network of states and districts.
Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has said that the Centre estimates to receive and utilise 40-50 crore doses of COVID-19 vaccine covering around 25 crore people by July next year.
The Centre, with the help of state and union territory governments, has started the process of identifying around 30 crore priority beneficiaries who would be given the vaccine dose in the initial phase.
This special COVID-19 immunisation programme would run in parallel with the Universal Immunisation Programme, but will use its processes, technology and network of the existing vaccine distribution framework, sources said.
According to the government, four categories of people have been demarcated for vaccination in the initial phase.
The first category of people will be the healthcare staff in the country. Around one crore healthcare professionals including doctors, MBBS students, nurses and ASHA workers, etc will be eligible to get this. Around two crore frontline workers including municipal corporation workers, personnel of the police and armed forces; about 26 crore people aged above 50; and a special group of those below 50 years of age with co-morbidities and requiring specialised care are the other categories.
States have been assigned to enlist these priority population groups by mid-November. Each person in the immunisation list will also be linked with their Aadhaar cards to track them.
The existing digital platform and processes used for the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) are being enhanced to track COVID-19 vaccine administration and movement - from procurement to storage to distribution to individual beneficiaries - as and when the vaccine becomes available, Health Ministry officials said.
Also, online training modules are being developed for vaccinators. The digital platform that is being enhanced is Electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network (eVIN), which provides real-time information on vaccine stocks and storage temperatures across all cold chain points in the country under UIP.
Under UIP, children, adolescents and pregnant women are currently vaccinated against vaccine-preventable diseases free-of-cost by the state.
The National Expert Committee on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 has already mapped the existing cold chain being utilised under the government's immunisation programme and has also made a projection of the additional requirement, Health Ministry officials had said earlier.
Presently, the committee is engaged in mapping private sector facilities that could serve the needs of supplementing the cold chain equipment.
The biggest benefit that India has is that it has a robust immunisation programme in place and it is implementing the largest immunisation programme of the world, with nearly 27 million newborns targeted for immunisation annually, said Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.
"We have an established infrastructure for supply, storage and delivery of vaccines to the last mile, under our Universal Immunisation Programme, where we are administering around 600 million doses to children every year," he said.
"The strength of these experiences in the vaccination landscape, our best practices and the robustness of our health delivery system will be leveraged and augmented using a strong IT backbone to ensure that this humongous national mission of vaccinating the identified priority groups with COVID-19 vaccine is achieved promptly. The Indian government will leverage the integrated IT platform eVin for managing vaccine distribution," he added.
This comes after a controversy that erupted on Thursday after the BJP in its manifesto for the Bihar assembly elections promised free COVID-19 vaccines, once it is available, for all.
However, the Union Health Minister re-affirmed the commitment of the Indian government and assured that it has accorded topmost priority to the research and manufacturing to ensure that the vaccine reaches to the last person.
(With inputs from PTI)