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UPDATE 2-India says COVID contained, but vaccine campaign stutters

* No new cases in 146 of 718 districts in past week

* Parts have reached herd immunity- survey, official

* India’s cases at 10.7 mln, vaccination at 2.5 mln (Adds details from health ministry presentation)

NEW DELHI, Jan 28 (Reuters) - India’s health minister on Thursday declared its COVID-19 epidemic contained as, with most of the country’s active patients concentrated in two states, a fifth of districts completed a week with no new cases.

However, an inoculation campaign touted by the government as the world’s biggest is progressing unevenly, with a survey showing more than half of Indians reluctant to get vaccinated immediately.

The country of 1.35 billion has recorded the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world after the United States and, with the likely true rate of infection even higher, one study suggests pockets of India have attained herd immunity through natural infection.

Since peaking in mid-September at close to 100,000 daily cases, the infection rate has slowed significantly. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said 11,666 cases were reported in the past 24 hours.

“India has successfully contained the pandemic,” he said in a statement. “India has flattened its COVID-19 graph.”

Vardhan said 146 of India’s 718 districts had had no new cases for a week.

India has around 173,000 active COVID-19 patients, more than two-thirds of them in Kerala and Maharashtra states. It has reported 10.7 million infections and 153,847 deaths - one of the world’s lowest fatality rates, attributed partly to its relatively young population.

With infections falling, the government will from next month lift curbs, reopening public swimming pools and allowing cinema halls and theatres to seat more than 50% of capacity.

IMMUNE ALREADY, OR VACCINE-SHY?

India started its immunisation programme on Jan. 16, with healthcare workers at the front of the line and a target of reaching 300 million people by July-August.

It is using a vaccine developed at home by Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research, and another licenced from AstraZeneca.

There is no shortage of shots, unlike in many other countries.

But 60% of Indians are hesitant about taking the vaccine immediately, according to a study by citizen-survey platform LocalCircles released on Wednesday - a high percentage but lower than a similar poll of 17,000 people found a few weeks ago.

The government has acknowledged that reluctance is shared by some doctors and nurses, who have expressed doubt about the Bharat Biotech vaccine, which was given approval for emergency use without late-stage efficacy data. The government says it is safe and effective.

Some states, including the national capital territory of Delhi and Maharashtra, have only been able to vaccinate a fifth or fewer of their healthcare workers, the health ministry said in a presentation.

Three doctors told Reuters anonymously that they already had antibodies through natural infection and would not rush to vaccinate themselves.

Antibody tests done on more than 700,000 people by diagnostics company Thyrocare Technologies showed that 55% of India’s population may have already been infected, its chief told Reuters.

The World Health Organization says here at least 60% to 70% of the population needs to have immunity to break the chain of transmission.

A top Indian vaccine official told Reuters even a smaller percentage of immunity could slow the spread of the virus.

“Most of our highly populated districts and cities have had their run of the pandemic by now ... and may have what you like to call herd immunity, to an extent,” Vinod Kumar Paul, who heads a committee on vaccine strategy, said this month. (Reporting by Krishna N. Das, Editing by Toby Chopra and John Stonestreet)

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