India starts booster shots for vulnerable people amid omicron wave

NEW DELHI (AP) – Healthcare and frontline workers as well as people over 60 with health concerns lined up at vaccination centers across India on Monday to receive a third dose as a as infections related to the omicron variant flare.

NEW DELHI (AP) – Healthcare and frontline workers as well as people over 60 with health concerns lined up at vaccination centers across India on Monday to receive a third dose as a as infections related to the omicron variant flare.

The doses, which India calls a “precautionary” injection instead of a booster, were given as new confirmed coronavirus infections soared to more than 179,000 on Monday, nearly eight times more in a week . Hospitalizations, while still relatively low, are also starting to increase in large, overcrowded cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.

India is better prepared now than it was last year when the Delta variant overwhelmed hospitals. When cases spiked in March last year, not even 1% of its population of nearly 1.4 billion was fully immunized. India’s creaky medical infrastructure meant millions of people are probably dead.

Since then, the government has beefed up healthcare, built oxygen factories and added beds to hospitals. About 47% of the population is now fully vaccinated and many have antibodies from previous infections. This can provide “hybrid immunity” – a combination of immunity against previous infections and vaccines – comparable to boosters, said Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, an Indian epidemiologist.

Although the omicron variant appears to cause less severe illness than the delta variant, India’s massive population, overcrowded cities and understaffed hospitals mean that healthcare systems can still be strained. In addition, elections may spreading the more infectious variant, allowing it to infect vulnerable people that previous variants did not reach. But the biggest fear is that hospitals will be overwhelmed with sick medical staff, said Dr Vineeta Bal, an immunologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in the city of Pune.

“There would be beds (in hospitals) but no one to look after individuals,” she said.

At best, Indian hospitals are understaffed, and health workers are unevenly distributed across states. Already, hospitals are crippling as hundreds of health workers fall ill with the variant. Federal hospitals have been forced to relax quarantine rules and some have shut down routine services.

“One in three doctors is either symptomatic or positive. There is a dire shortage of personnel. And there is an acute crisis, ”said Dr Anuj Aggarwal of Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi, one of India’s largest public hospitals.

At the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi City, the state capital of Jharkhand, a quarter of the 800 health workers were suffering from mild infections, said Dr Prabhat Kumar, COVID-19 treatment manager. the low.

Delay in providing boosters could be costly, said Dr T. Jacob John, former head of virology at Christian Medical College in southern India. He said having to give a third injection when a surge threatened to overwhelm hospitals would place an additional burden on health workers.

Late boosters are given to high-risk groups who were among the first to receive vaccines last year and whose immunity may decline. Unlike other countries, where many people are given a different vaccine as a booster, most Indians will receive the same type, in most cases the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. . The benefits of this are “relatively limited,” and India was hoping to have more vaccines available so that the booster shots could be mixed, Lahariya said.

“India doesn’t have that kind of choice,” he said.

The Serum Institute’s AstraZeneca vaccine accounts for nearly 90% of all doses administered in India, although emergency approvals have been granted for eight vaccines.

Some Indian vaccine makers have had manufacturing issues, while others, such as Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, have sought protection from lawsuits for side effects, which India has been reluctant to grant.

India’s vaccination campaign has also been patchy. About 30% of the population over 60 was not fully vaccinated by the end of 2021 and vaccinations for those under 18, or about a third of India’s population, began last week.

The vaccination rate also varies considerably from state to state, from 75% in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh to 31% in the eastern state of Jharkhand, among the poorest in India.

“These gaps will definitely be exposed,” said Bal, the immunologist.

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PA journalists Sheikh Saaliq and Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi, Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow and Indrajit Singh in Patna contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Aniruddha Ghosal, The Associated Press

Carol N. Valencia