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India marks its 1 billionth COVID vaccination — but the fight is far from over

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This evening 100 historic monuments across India are being lit up with the colors of the Indian flag. It's one of the ways the country is celebrating its 1 billionth COVID-19 vaccination. India is the second country to surpass a billion shots after China. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In the days leading up to this milestone, India's health minister set up a countdown clock on YouTube so that people could follow the country's vaccination tally online. And when it struck 1 billion on Thursday morning, news anchors broke into programming.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There we have it. That's the moment - India at 1 billion vaccine doses.

FRAYER: Train stations announced it on their PA systems. The government released a celebratory video showing health care workers trekking up mountains and crossing rivers with coolers of COVID-19 vaccines on their backs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the 1 billion milestone a triumph of Indian science.

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PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: The 21 of October will be remembered forever, he said. But there were a lot of other days this year that many might rather forget. India is the largest vaccine maker in the world, but it mismanaged supply chains and ran short of vaccines this spring right as the delta variant hit.

VINEETA BAL: The government of India did not plan, did not foresee the requirement.

FRAYER: Immunologist Vineeta Bal recalls how India's health system collapsed six months ago. People were dying in hospital parking lots. Vaccination centers ran out of shots. India halted vaccine exports, leaving the World Health Organization's COVAX scheme short of millions of doses that were supposed to go to the world's poorest.

BAL: While India might be celebrating 1 billion doses, the situation in Africa is so bad. So from a public health perspective, it is not how things should have been handled.

FRAYER: Coronavirus infections have dropped dramatically here. India now has enough shots for its domestic needs. The government is restarting vaccine exports, but COVAX is still waiting for its orders. And while three-quarters of Indians have now received at least one shot, only about a third of the population is fully vaccinated. So while Indians celebrate this vaccine milestone, scientists say they have to keep their guard up and their masks on.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK PRITCHARD SONG, "BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.