By Krishna N. Das
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday India was completely self-reliant on coronavirus vaccine supplies as the world's second-most populous country inoculated more than 1 million people within a week of starting its campaign.
On Saturday, India began what the government calls the world's biggest vaccination programme, using two shots made locally: one licensed from Oxford University and AstraZeneca Plc, and another developed at home by Bharat Biotech in partnership with the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research.
"Our preparation has been such that vaccine is fast reaching every corner of the country," Modi said on a video call with healthcare workers.
"And on the world's biggest need today, we are completely self-reliant. Not just that, India is also helping out many countries with vaccines."
India, known as the pharmaceutical capital of the world, has gifted vaccines to neighbours and partners such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives. It is starting commercial shipments to Brazil and Morocco on Friday.
The U.S. State Department praised the Indian effort.
"We applaud India’s role in global health, sharing millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine in South Asia," it said on Twitter. "India's a true friend using its pharma to help the global community."
Earlier this week, the head of the World Health Organization urged countries and manufacturers to spread vaccines more fairly around the world, and warned that the world was on the brink of "catastrophic moral failure" if it did not do this.
FIRST MILLION VACCINATED
India's own vaccination drive kicked off with 30 million healthcare and other frontline workers first in the queue, followed by about 270 million people older than 50 or deemed at high-risk because of pre-existing medical conditions.
That puts 70-year-old Modi in the second category. He reiterated the sequence would be followed but no made reference to when exactly he would be vaccinated.
India, a country of 1.35 billion people, has so far reported 10.63 million COVID-19 cases - the highest after the United States - with 153,032 deaths.
The health ministry said India inoculated more people on its first day than the United States, Britain or France. Still, it has been urging more frontline workers to come forward to take the shots as only a handful of states have been able to meet their daily targets.
It said in a statement that 1.04 million people had received their first doses as of early Friday.
Some doctors have expressed doubt about the Bharat Biotech vaccine, which was given approval for emergency use without efficacy data from late-stage clinical trials. The government says it is safe and effective.
Bharat Biotech said on Friday that 13,000 people participating in the late-stage trial of its COVAXIN had been given the second dose, which could help it soon get some idea about its efficacy. It began the late trial in November, completing registration of a total 25,800 participants by early January.
In the coming months, India is expected to approve two more vaccines, Russia's Sputnik V and Cadila Healthcare's ZyCov-D. India's focus on locally made shots could force companies such as Pfizer Inc to also look at producing in the country.
The U.S. company was first to seek emergency use authorisation in India early last month, with plans to import the shots, but a top government vaccine official has told Reuters it will need to do a local trial first. The government has also requested the company to consider local production, like Russia has done.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alison Williams)