India expects to begin vaccinating people against Covid-19 by “any week” of January, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan said on Sunday, reported ANI. The government has identified 30 crore people who would receive the shot in the first phase of inoculation, he said.

In an interview to the news agency, the minister said that the vaccines that have applied for emergency use authorisation are being analysed by the drug regulator. “I personally feel, maybe in January in any stage or any week, there can be a time when we can be in a position to give first Covid vaccine shot to the people of India,” Vardhan said.

The Covishield vaccine made by Serum Institute of India, which has partnered with British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research, are the two potential candidates that have applied for authorisation.

Besides, six more are in various stages of clinical trials. The final call on the efficacy of a vaccine will be taken by the Drugs Controller General of India.

There have been concerns about how India would monitor “adverse events” following immunisation after a 40-year-old man had sued the Serum Institute, complaining that he suffered serious “neurological and psychological” symptoms following a trial jab. Serum had rejected the allegation, claiming that its reputation was being “unfairly maligned”.

Vardhan said the government’s priority has always been the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. “India is not less than any country when it comes to Covid-19 vaccine and research,” Vardhan added. “We do not want any compromise on that. Our regulators are analysing them with seriousness.”

He added that around 30 crore people will be vaccinated starting from January. “This includes health workers, frontline workers like police, military and sanitation staff, people above 50 years of age those who are below the age of 50, but are suffering from certain diseases,” he said.

The health minister reiterated that taking the vaccine would be voluntary. “We will try to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy,” he said. “But if anyone decides to not take it, we cannot force them.”

On Saturday, Vardhan had said that the country’s scientists have worked on an indigenous vaccine, and in the next six to seven months, India will have the capacity to inoculate the said number of 30 crore people. “Our scientists and health experts have worked on the development of a vaccine by genome sequencing and isolation of the coronavirus and developed an indigenous vaccine,” he had said.

India already runs the world’s biggest immunisation programme, inoculating more than four crore newborns and pregnant women against 12 diseases every year. Every year, it administers vaccines for diphtheria, polio, measles and other childhood diseases.

When asked if the government aimed to eradicate Covid-19 like polio, Vardhan said: “It was scientifically possible to eradicate polio. Ultimately, coronavirus will also subside and we will come across its sporadic occurrences.”

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Pfizer vaccine in India

Vardhan on Sunday added that regulators were examining the permission sought by the Indian arm of American pharmaceutical firm Pfizer for emergency authorisation of its Covid-19 vaccine. “I have heard that they have applied for emergency use permission from our regulators,” he told ANI. “According to my information, our regulators are examining it.

He also sought to dispel any kind of speculation around the matter. “If a politician speaks on the matter which is in the jurisdiction of experts, it will not be appropriate,” he said. “Perhaps they did not take part in the meeting.”

The Pfizer vaccine had shown to be 95% effective in preventing the disease in a late-stage trial. The vaccine was first approved in Britain on December 2, and the UK residents began receiving the shots earlier this month. The United States started the rollout of the vaccine on December 18.

The vaccine uses messenger mRNA technology to introduce the body to the spike protein found on the outside of the coronavirus to provoke an immune response. It requires two doses, administered three weeks apart. Because of the complex distribution challenges associated to the vaccine – requiring ultra-cold storage and shipping requirements – experts have raised concerns about whether its rollout would be possible in India, which lacks the necessary infrastructure. On November 24, Vardhan had said that India “may not need” the vaccine at all, and would rely on the stocks in the country.