Mumbai Mayor Kishori Pednekar holds a box of Covishield vaccines that arrived in a truck on January 13. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

MUMBAI – India will have about 16 million vaccines at key towns across the country to begin its most ambitious ever vaccination program from Saturday even as doubts about testing muddied public discussion.

The atmosphere was festive in Pune outside Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, as employees, workers and transport staff prepared to make deliveries across the country by road and air.

About 5.5 million vials were sent on Tuesday and an equal number was due to be sent on Wednesday.

Serum, a pioneer in making vaccines for 55 years, is producing the Covid-19 vaccine named Covishield in collaboration with Oxford-AstraZeneca, and is being tapped by countries from Brazil to South Africa to Bangladesh. It can produce 70 million vaccines a month.

The other vaccine is being produced by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, along with Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and Institute of Virology, named Covaxin. About 5.5 million Covaxins will reach vaccination centers by Thursday. At least four other vaccines are being tested for approval in India.

The government last week approved vaccines by Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech for emergency use. This however triggered a storm since Bharat Biotech was yet to formally complete the required phase-three trials.

Medical professionals, police, other security forces, government staff and those helping Covid patients will be among the initial batch of the 300 million people in the first phase. It will be followed by those aged over 50 and those with co-morbidities.

The program will begin with Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching Covid Vaccine Intelligence Work App for smooth operation of the inoculation drive.

Nationalist Congress Party spokesman Nawab Malik said Modi should take the first jab to instil confidence in others. Bhupesh Baghel, Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, suggested the entire Modi cabinet take the vaccine before other citizens.

Samajwadi Party leader Pandit Singh said when global leaders such as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s daughter can be among the first to take their country’s vaccine then surely Modi should show the way by taking the first jab.

AztraZeneca’s vaccine arrives in Kolkata before mass distribution. Photo: Debarchan Chatterjee/NurPhoto

With doubts about the Bharat Biotech vaccine completing its third trial, some political leaders are questioning the haste in granting its license for use.

“There are doubts in the minds of people so the Prime Minister should lead the vaccination process on this historic occasion,’’ said T S Singh Deo, Health Minister of Chhattisgarh state.

“While I am proud of Bharat Biotech vaccine and will volunteer to put my name for its use, it should have been permitted to complete its phase-three trials before approval.’’

Manish Tewari, a member of the lower house, told ANI television news service, “The government should not have rolled out Covaxin until its efficacy and reliability is completely established and phase-three trials are over.

“It should act in a manner whereby there is complete confidence in people. You can’t use roll-out as phase-three trial. Indians are not guinea pigs.’’

The government will be using both the Serum Institute as well as Bharat Biotech vaccines in the initial phase of vaccination. Only one vaccine will be used on a day so that there is no mix up now and during the repeat jab. Recipients will not get to choose the vaccine. This too has brought some heat.

Officials put vaccines in a coldbox to maintain their temperature while transporting from storage in Ahmedabad. Photo by Sam Panthaky/AFP

“Covaxin was licensed by the government for emergency use,’’ said Tewari.

“Now the government is saying that the recipient won’t be able to pick and choose the vaccine administered. When phase-three trials are not complete, it raises various concerns on its efficacy.’’

In the meantime, Bharat Biotech signed a vaccine agreement with Precisa Medicamentos of Brazil.  

Still, as daily cases decline to fewer than 16,000 a day, the lowest since June, daily fatalities to less than 200, and the number of active cases to under 216,000, public fear of the pandemic is lessening and excitement at getting a jab is rising.

Most states, while insisting that Covid discipline be maintained, have relaxed lockdown restrictions. Mumbai is expected to decide on opening suburban trains, now restricted to essential workers, to everyone this month.