India starts huge vaccine drive as global virus deaths top 2 million

One of the first to receive a jab in the eastern city of Kolkata was 35-year-old health worker Santa Roy.

FILE: A nurse shows the Sputnik V (Gam-COVID-Vac) vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a clinic in Moscow on 5 December 2020, amid the ongoing coronavirus disease pandemic. Picture: AFP

NEW DELHI - India kicked off one of the world's largest coronavirus vaccination drives Saturday as the pandemic spread at a record pace and global Covid-19 deaths surged past two million.

The World Health Organization has called for accelerating vaccine rollouts worldwide as well as ramping up efforts to study the sequencing of the virus, which has infected more than 93 million people globally since it was first detected in China in late 2019.

India, home to 1.3 billion people, has the world's second-largest caseload.

The government has given approvals to two vaccines -- though one is yet to complete clinical trials -- aiming to inoculate around 300 million people by July.

One of the first to receive a jab in the eastern city of Kolkata was 35-year-old health worker Santa Roy, who told AFP he now saw a "ray of hope" after witnessing people die of the coronavirus.

Authorities say they are drawing on their experience with elections and child immunisation programmes for the drive, which is a daunting task in an enormous, impoverished nation with often shoddy transport infrastructure and one of the world's worst-funded healthcare systems.

Regular child inoculations are a "much smaller game" and vaccinating against Covid-19 will be "deeply challenging", said Satyajit Rath from India's National Institute of Immunology.

The government has readied tens of thousands of refrigeration tools and about 150,000 specially trained staff to try and overcome some of those challenges.

The vaccines will also have high security, so that doses do not end up being sold on India's large black market for medicines.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday said he wanted "to see vaccination under way in every country in the next 100 days so that health workers and those at high risk are protected first".

His call came as infections snowballed, with 724,000 new cases recorded on average per day globally over the past week, according to AFP's tally - a record 10 percent increase on a week earlier.

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