Several Indian states have run out of coronavirus vaccines a day before a planned widening of a nationwide inoculation drive, authorities said on Friday, as new infections surged to another daily record.
New cases in the past 24 hours stood at 386,452, while deaths jumped by 3,498, health ministry data shows. Medical experts believe actual numbers may be five to 10 times greater than the official tally, however.
Since the end of February, India has added about 7.7 million cases as its second wave of infections picked up steam, a Reuters tally shows. In contrast, it took nearly six months to add the previous 7.7 million cases.
The world's second-most populous nation is in deep crisis, with hospitals and morgues overwhelmed by the pandemic, medicines and oxygen in short supply and strict curbs on movement in the biggest cities.
Despite being the world's biggest producer of vaccines, India does not have enough stockpiles to keep up with the second deadly wave of infections, which deals a blow to its plans to vaccinate all adults, starting from Saturday.
Only about 9% of a population of 1.4 billion have received a vaccine dose since January.
"I registered to get a slot 28 days before, but now they are saying there are no vaccines," Twitter user Jasmin Oza said in a video post.
The original vaccination plan was to cover just 300 million of the highest-risk people by August, but India widened the target as infections flared.
However, its two vaccine producers were already struggling to increase capacity beyond 80 million doses a month, hit by a shortage of raw materials and a fire at the Serum Institute, the maker of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Inoculation centres in the financial capital of Mumbai will shut for three days from Friday because of the vaccine shortage, authorities said.
Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal urged citizens not to show up at vaccination centres on Saturday, as doses had not yet arrived. "Let us not create a law and order problem tomorrow," he said.
In Karnataka, home to the tech hub of Bengaluru, the southern state's health minister said its vaccination drive for adults would not begin on Saturday.
"The state government has not received any information from companies about when they will be able to supply these vaccines," said the minister, K Sudhakar.
World sends aid
Officials in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's western home state of Gujarat said vaccinations for those aged between 18 and 45 will begin on Saturday in 10 of the worst-hit districts. Earlier, they had warned of postponing them by two weeks.
Officials in the eastern state of Odisha said they hoped to start vaccinations on Monday, if vaccine stocks arrived.
However, the health ministry said states had 10 million vaccine doses in their stockpiles and 2 million more would be supplied in the next three days.
It was not immediately possible to reconcile the contradicting statements.
Modi met cabinet ministers on Friday as the wave of infections cripples the health system and threatens to hit major businesses. Absenteeism in offices and industries is growing, as staff fall ill or take leave to care for sick relatives.
There was no immediate word of decisions taken at the meeting of ministers, however.
World aid has started arriving to help India combat what has been described as a humanitarian disaster.
The first US flight carrying oxygen cylinders, regulators, rapid diagnostic kits, N95 masks and pulse oximeters arrived on Friday, in the capital, New Delhi.
"Just as India came to our aid early in the pandemic, the United States is committed to working urgently to provide assistance to India in its time of need," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter.
"Today we are proud to deliver our first shipment of critical oxygen equipment, therapeutics and raw materials for vaccine production."
Two more weeks of oxygen crisis
The United States will send more than $100 million in medical aid, including 1,000 oxygen cylinders, 15 million N95 masks and 1 million rapid diagnostic tests.
It has also redirected its own order of AstraZeneca (AZN.L) supplies to India, to allow it to make more than 20 million doses.
Shipments from other countries poured in, with a third one from Britain arriving on Friday, while Ireland and Romania also sent supplies the previous day.
India’s severe medical oxygen supply crisis is expected to ease by mid-May, a top industry executive told Reuters, with output rising by 25% and transport arrangements ready to meet a surge in demand.
India will receive the first batch of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine on Saturday. Russia's RDIF sovereign wealth fund, which markets Sputnik V globally, has signed deals with five Indian manufacturers for more than 850 million vaccine doses a year.
India's sheer magnitude of infections in a short time suggests an "escape variant" may be overpowering any prior immunity from natural infections, said prominent US disease modeller Chris Murray, of the University of Washington.
"That makes it most likely that it’s B.1.617," he said. But Murray cautioned that gene sequencing data on the coronavirus in India is sparse, and that many cases are also being driven by the British and South African variants.
However, the Indian variant could not alone be behind the huge surge, said Carlo Federico Perno, a diagnostics expert at Rome's Bambino Gesù Hospital, who pointed instead to large social gatherings.
Modi has been criticised for allowing massive political rallies and religious festivals which have been super-spreader events in recent weeks.