India's record COVID-19 surge continues, vaccines run short


India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives his second dose of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) hospital in New Delhi, India, April 8, 2021. India's Press Information Bureau/Handout via REUTERS

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India reported a record 126,789 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday as several states struggled to contain a second surge in infections, complaining of vaccine shortages and demanding inoculations be expanded to younger people.

Daily infections surpassed 100,000 for the first time on Monday and have now exceeded that mark three times, the biggest daily rises in the world.

The spike, much faster than last year's first wave, has caught authorities by surprise. The government blames the resurgence mainly on crowding and a reluctance to wear masks as shops and offices have reopened.

New Zealand on Thursday suspended entry for all travellers from India, including its own citizens, for about two weeks.

With 12.9 million cases, India is the third-worst affected country, trailing the United States and Brazil. Deaths rose by 685 - the most in five days - to 166,862, data from the health ministry showed.

Vaccine centres in several states, including hardest-hit Maharashtra, have been shutting early and turning people away as supplies run out. Odisha state said it had closed half its vaccination sites.

Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope accused the federal government of allocating relatively fewer doses to the state than those ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party. He also said the state would look into fixing prices of antiviral drug Remdesivir, citing shortages.

A spokesman for the federal health ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters e-mail seeking comment.

The federal government denied there was any shortage for the prioritised group of recipients - those aged above 45 years and front-line workers - accusing states of spreading panic.

"VACCINE OUT OF STOCK"

Healthcare workers outside a government hospital in Mumbai city - India's financial capital - were seen turning people away, asking them to call a helpline number set up by the municipal authorities.

"We don't know when the vaccine will be back in stock. It could be available later today or maybe tomorrow," one of them said.

Notices saying "vaccine out of stock" were plastered outside a centre in a neighbouring suburb, along with helpline numbers.

In two other districts in Maharashtra, local officials said inoculation efforts had been stopped and centres were closed.

In India's far off Andaman Islands, authorities said they would conduct random testing at the airport in the capital Port Blair, due to a sudden surge in cases and complaints over passengers carrying fake test reports.

Opposition parties have blamed the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for exporting tens of millions of vaccine doses while itself covering only a fraction of India's 1.35 billion people. India is the world's biggest vaccine maker.

"Why was there no strategy or planning put into the logistics of the vaccine programme?" the main opposition Congress party said on Twitter. "Why is there both extremely high wastage & an acute shortage of vaccines?"

The Serum Institute of India, which has supplied about 90% of the 88 million vaccine doses administered in the country, has sought a federal grant of 30 billion rupees ($400 million) to increase its capacity to make the AstraZeneca shot.

India is also using a homegrown vaccine developed by a government institute and Bharat Biotech, which is struggling to boost its output.

Some of the big states, including Maharashtra, have imposed stricter curbs including night curfews and shut down malls, restaurants and places of worship. The federal government has refused to impose another national lockdown.

(Reporting by Neha Arora, Nallur Sethuraman, Rajendra Jadhav, Francis Mascarenhas and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, William Mallard and Kim Coghill)

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