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Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on Monday said that the government will be in a "situation to administer vaccines to those above 50 years of age in March," in the next phase of India's Covid-19 vaccination drive.

Vardhan also said that expert group on vaccination will discuss how to pay for vaccination of those above 50 years of age.

Speaking at a press briefing today, Vardhan reviewed the Covid-19 situation in the country. He said that private healthcare facilities and workers are already part of the vaccination drive. "During emergency use authorisations (EUA), it is the responsibility of the government to keep things under control and open market sales are not part of EUA," he added.

He informed reporters that in the last 7 days, no new cases of COVID19 have been reported in 188 districts of the country.

He also emphasised the importance of maintaining social distancing and Covid appropriate behaviours amid the pandemic. "It is crucial that people continue to follow COVID appropriate behaviour which I had called a social vaccine, along with real vaccine," the health minister said.

The health ministry also said that a new flagship program of PM Atmanirbhar Swastha Bharat Yojana has been announced. "Budget has referred to a holistic approach toward health and health care. Allocation to the health sector for 2020-21 is 1.8% of GDP," the ministry added.

In terms of Covid vaccination progress in India, which commenced on 16 January, Vardhan said that 80-85% frontline workers vaccinated, 20-25 countries to be availed with vaccine. At least 18-20 vaccines are in preclinical, clinical and advanced stages. Expect them in the coming months.

He also informed not one death reported due to Covid-19 vaccination. If there's death after vaccination, it's being investigated. Even routine side effects have a negligible number. Relevant stakeholders working on post-Covid symptoms.

Earlier, in Lok Sabha, Vardhan had said that inoculation of those aged above 50 is likely to commence in March and will cover 27 crore people aged 50 years and above and those with co-morbidities.

Replying to questions on vaccines and the vaccination drive against the coronavirus during the Question Hour, Vardhan said nearly five million people have been inoculated in the country so far.

He added that the vaccination drive for frontline workers has begun this week.

"In coming days, 27 crore people who are of above 50 years of age and those under 50 with co-morbidities will be vaccinated," Vardhan said.

The vaccination drive began on January 16, starting with healthcare workers and then the frontline workers, both estimated to be around three crore.

"After the completion of first and second phases, the third phase could be launched from any week next month," Vardhan said.

He added that the third phase will cover people above the age of 50.

"It is not possible to give an exact date, but we estimate that this process can start in the second, third or the fourth week of March," he said.

Vardhan said the finance minister has allocated 35,000 crore for vaccination in the budget and she has assured that it could be increased if required.

He said two vaccines -- Covishield, manufactured by the Serum Institute, and indigenously developed Covaxin of Bharat Biotech -- have been approved for emergency use authorisation.

Besides these, work is in progress on seven vaccines. Of the seven, three vaccines are in phase 3 clinical trial stage. Two vaccines are in phase 1 and 2 clinical trial stages and the remaining two are in advanced pre-clinical stage.

He said India has received requests for vaccines from 22 countries. These countries include Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brazil, Egypt, Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritius, Morocco, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, South Africa and the UAE. There is also request from the Pacific Island countries, he said.

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