India signed its first order for an unapproved Covid-19 vaccine on Thursday, a day after criticism from the Supreme Court over its bungled vaccine rollout that has left millions of people vulnerable after almost 338,000 deaths.
So far, only 4.7% of the 950 million adult population have been given two vaccine doses. The world's second most populous country is reeling from a widespread second wave of infections that killed around 170,000 people in April and May alone.
The government will buy 300 million vaccine doses from local firm Biological-E and has put down an advance of $205.6 million, the health ministry said, even though the vaccine is still going through Phase III clinical trials.
"The arrangement with Biological-E is part of the wider endeavour of the government of India to encourage indigenous vaccine manufacturers by providing them support in research & development and also financial support," the ministry said in a statement.
India has been inoculating its people with AstraZeneca shots produced at the Serum Institute of India, as well as Covaxin made by local firm Bharat Biotech, and is set to commercially launch Russia's Sputnik V in mid-June.
But supplies are running short after the government opened vaccinations to all adults last month. Some vaccination centres have had to close down, prompting criticism from the Supreme Court about a lack of planning.
While the federal government gave free vaccines to the elderly and frontline workers, it left state governments and private hospitals to administer doses to people in the 18-45 age group at a price.
"The policy of the central government of conducting free vaccination themselves for groups under the first two phases, and replacing it with paid vaccination...is, prima facie, arbitrary and irrational," the Supreme Court said.
The government said this week it could have as many as 10 million doses each day in July and August, up from just under three million now.
Pressure is set to mount further on the government to speed up vaccinations, as several states prepare to ease economically damaging lockdowns even amid high numbers of daily infections and deaths.
The western state of Maharashtra, home to financial hub Mumbai, is planning to lift most restrictions across 18 districts this month, based on availability of oxygen beds and infection rates, officials said.
India on Thursday announced 134,154 new infections over the past 24 hours, down more than 65% from a peak of 414,188 reported on May 7. The official recorded caseload since the start of the pandemic now stands at 28.4 million, the second-highest in the world after the United States.
India added 2,887 deaths overnight, pushing the overall toll to 337,989, the world's third-highest toll after the United States and Brazil.
On Thursday, a spokesman for India's foreign ministry said New Delhi was in dialogue with Washington to ensure a supply of raw materials for vaccine production.
India also raised the issue during the recent US visit of its foreign minister, the spokesman said, adding: "It is in our mutual interest to combat the global pandemic by expediting vaccination efforts."
New Delhi's high court has said that some federal officials should be charged with manslaughter over the halting vaccine rollout.
"Who are they referring to, you think? This effectively concludes the debate on that subject," Sanjay Jha, a former Congress official and political commentator, said on Twitter. "This government has failed. And failed its people miserably."