India to provide free Covid-19 vaccines to all adults

Move comes after criticism of a bungled vaccine roll-out that has covered less than 5 per cent of adults

NEW DELHI: India will provide free Covid-19 vaccines to all adults, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said yesterday, in an effort to rein in a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands.

Mr Modi's announcement on national television came after weeks of criticism of a bungled vaccine roll-out that has covered less than 5 per cent of India's estimated adult population of 950 million.

Health experts have warned that vaccination is the only way to protect lives from a third wave of infections after a surge in April-May overwhelmed hospitals in the big cities and in the vast hinterland.

Mr Modi said the federal government would take over the vaccination programme from the states from June 21, reversing a policy under which states were running a part of it.

"Whether it is the poor, the lower-middle class, the middle class, or the upper-middle class, under the federal government programme, every one will get free vaccines," he said.

Under the earlier policy, the federal government gave free vaccines to the elderly and front-line workers, and left state governments and private hospitals to administer doses for a fee to people in the 18-45 age group.

State governments were also competing against each other to procure vaccines from local manufacturers as well as foreign ones with little luck. India has been inoculating its people with the AstraZeneca vaccine produced locally by the Serum Institute of India and Covaxin made by local company Bharat Biotech. It will commercially launch Russia's Sputnik V shots later this month.

Mr Modi said the government would allow private hospitals to have 25 per cent of all vaccine supplies but they cannot charge more than 150 rupees (S$2.70) over the cost of the dose.

The new policy should move things faster, an expert said.

"This (centralised inoculation policy) eliminates states having to compete with one another for vaccine supplies, leaving them to concentrate on distributing them rapidly to their populations," said Professor Gautam Menon at Ashoka University in Delhi.

Overnight, India reported 100,636 cases, the lowest since April 6, and well off last month's peaks of more than 400,000, allowing the authorities to reopen parts of the economy. - REUTERS