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World's Biggest Vaccine Maker 'Very Stressed' As India Sees Record Spike In COVID-19

Police officers stand guard during a night curfew designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus in New Delhi. The national capital has imposed a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew until April 30.
Mayank Makhija
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Police officers stand guard during a night curfew designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus in New Delhi. The national capital has imposed a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew until April 30.

MUMBAI — India confirmed another record jump in COVID-19 cases Wednesday, as the world's biggest vaccine maker said it was "very stressed" and needs help from the Indian government to boost production.

India is struggling to speed up vaccinations amid its sharpest spike in coronavirus infections since the pandemic began. Authorities are also trying to balance stricter curbs on movement while also ensuring fair voting in five regions holding state elections throughout the month.

Despite bans on large gatherings in other parts of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared in person at several political rallies Tuesday in West Bengal, one of the jurisdictions voting this month. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party hopes to make inroads in West Bengal — one of the last bastions of opposition rule.

India has administered nearly 90 million vaccine doses so far. But that's still less than 6% of the population of nearly 1.4 billion. Modi got his first dose of a coronavirus vaccine on March 1.

In an interview with local TV, the CEO of the Serum Institute of India, Adar Poonawalla, said late Tuesday that his company's production of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the injection most used in India, is "very stressed, to put it frankly."

"We are prioritizing the needs of India, but we are still short of being able to supply to every Indian," Poonawalla said.

He said he planned to take out bank loans if the Indian government does not respond to his request for about $400 million in order to meet its requirements.

After touting its ability to export millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines, India in recent weeks has diverted some of those shipments for use domestically. Other countries have complained that their vaccine orders from India have been delayed.

The Health Ministry on Wednesday confirmed 115,736 new infections and 630 deaths — India's highest death toll since November.

About half of the new cases are in the western state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is the state capital. Hospitals there are running out of beds, oxygen and medicines. Apartment complexes where residents test positive are being sealed off and guarded by police.

Mumbai and the national capital Delhi both remain under night curfews. The Delhi High Court said Wednesday that masks are compulsory – even if a person is driving alone in their own car. Gatherings are banned, and officials have closed Mumbai's beaches and other areas where crowds may gather.

But restaurants, shops — even cinemas — remain open in most of India. Officials have held off declaring a strict nationwide lockdown. Last spring, India's economy shrank nearly 24% under nationwide restrictions, and there were cases of starvation among the poor.

The chief ministers of Maharashtra and New Delhi have instead asked Modi's government to lift age requirements and speed vaccinations to adults of all ages. But the central government has so far refused. Only people 45 or older, and some categories of frontline workers, remain eligible.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.

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