Indian Government to Distribute Majority of COVID Vaccines for Free After Numerous Delays

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Monday that India's federal government will now provide COVID-19 vaccines to all adults ages 18 and older in a vaccine drive set to start later this month after delays and shortages.

Previously, the federal government only provided vaccinations for front-line workers and those ages 45 and older, and states and the private sector provided vaccines for adults between the ages of 18 and 44.

Now, the federal government will obtain 75 percent of vaccines directly from manufacturers to be provided for free. The private sector will purchase the remaining 25 percent.

Though many states vaccinated adults ages 18 to 44 for free, there was a competition with the private sector to obtain enough doses of the vaccine. Vaccine makers made a profit by seller to the private sector at a higher price, leaving states struggling to find enough doses, experts say.

The new policy will overturn the previous policy established in April.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Narendra Modi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses a public meeting at Jerenga Pathar in Sivasagar district of India's Assam state on Jan. 23. Modi announced on Monday the Indian federal government will now provide 75 percent of vaccinations for adults ages 18 and older. Biju Boro/AFP via Getty Images

Modi's announcement, in a nationally televised speech, came as pressure was mounting on his government to speed up vaccinations and ensure equity. Last week, the Supreme Court called the previous vaccination policy "arbitrary and irrational."

India has administered just over 222 million vaccinations so far and less than 5 percent of the country's population has been fully inoculated.

Meanwhile, businesses in two of India's largest cities were reopening as part of a phased easing of lockdown measures in several states now that the number of new infections in the country is on a steady decline.

India's capital, New Delhi, allowed businesses and shops to reopen with limited hours on Monday and its Metro, which serves the city and adjoining areas, resumed operation at 50 percent capacity. Last week, authorities in the capital allowed some manufacturing and construction activity to resume.

"Now the corona situation is under control. The economy must be brought back on track," New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Sunday.

The strict lockdown measures had been in place since April at the start of a devastating surge in infections that lasted well into May and overwhelmed health care facilities in many parts of the country.

Some health experts fear the restrictions are being eased too soon and there are concerns that the virus is still spreading unchecked through India's villages, where testing and medical care are limited.

Kejriwal warned any new surge in infections could be more severe and said the administration will build new oxygen production facilities and expand the capacity of intensive-care units.

In the coastal state of Maharashtra, home to the financial hub of Mumbai and one of the worst-hit states, malls, movie theaters, restaurants and offices reopened in districts where the test positivity rate has fallen below 5 percent. The state's huge rail network will, however, remain closed for the public.

Other Indian cities also started to gradually lift lockdown rules.

After registering a peak of more than 400,000 new cases a day in May, new infections and deaths have declined and the government hopes the reopening could resuscitate an economy that grew at only a 1.6 percent annual rate in the January-March quarter.

On Monday, new infections fell to their lowest point in two months.

The 100,636 cases added in the past 24 hours pushed India's total to nearly 29 million, second only to the United States. The Health Ministry said 2,427 more people died in the previous 24 hours, driving the overall toll to 349,186. Both figures are believed to be vast undercounts.

Virus outbreak India
A man sanitizes the premises of a shopping mall before reopening after being closed since April as part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus in New Delhi, India, on June 6. Businesses in two of India’s largest cities are reopening as part of a phased easing of lockdown measures in several states now the number of new coronavirus infections in the country is on a steady decline. Ishant Chauhan/AP Photo