From glitches and a slow start since it opened in January to a record 8.6 million vaccinations on Monday, India’s online vaccination platform CoWin has come a long way. With the return to centralized vaccine procurement beginning 21 June, the government is constantly fine-tuning the platform for the mass adult immunization drive. The man behind CoWin, R.S. Sharma, chief executive officer of National Health Authority (NHA) and chairman of the CoWin panel, spoke in an interview about the challenges before the government, usage and scaling up of CoWin and vaccine passports, among others. Edited excerpts:
Government data shows an urban-rural divide in access to CoWin. Why is it so, and what are you doing to address this issue?
We have a huge amount of internet infrastructure in India, with over 1 billion phone connections. Now, the 1 billion telephone connections don’t belong only to urban areas. There is connectivity everywhere. I agree, it’s not a great bandwidth, but there is connectivity. But the system is also inclusive. About 53% of vaccine doses given in the country are in rural India, and 80% of the total vaccinations have been without registration. The assumption is that in rural areas, more people could have gone without registration and in urban areas, more people could have gone with registration. Moreover, ownership of a mobile phone is not a prerequisite for covid vaccination. CoWin platform is an inclusive IT system that provides a flexible framework with all the necessary features to facilitate coverage in the remotest parts as well as for those who are most vulnerable. Data shows more than 70% of vaccination centres are located in rural areas, including more than 26,000 at primary health centres and 26,000 at sub-health centres.
What new features in CoWin are you working on in terms of integrating it with vaccine passports?
Since the beginning, we have introduced what is called a digital vaccination certificate. Now, this certificate we have aligned with what is called Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, or FHIRs. Now, FHIR is a World Health Organization (WHO) standard. While other countries are talking about vaccine passports, the digital certificate is our vaccine passport. Basically, we need to get this included in the travel infrastructure. The WHO did this subgroup thing about vaccine passports, but now it has all become a bilateral issue. One country tells another that I will accept your certificate and you accept mine. We will have to work on this with various countries, but this is as good as it gets.
Are we in talks with countries on acceptance of this certificate?
Till now, the WHO formed some committees. There were two groups. One group was to look at standardization, and another group was to have multilateral agreements. Now, the second group is apparently not functioning. That decision has happened very recently. We are left with zero bilateral pact. So, we’ll have to now carry out conversations with countries. That is not my territory and is something at the ministry of external affairs level. At our level, what we have produced is essentially the digital passport or digital certificate of access. It is encrypted, digitally verifiable and QR-coded.
How does a person who wants to travel link his/her certificate to passports?
That work is in progress. Actually, we are also saying that if you are a potential international traveller, you should mention your passport as your identity proof document. So, automatically, the passport number will be retained on certificates. Even otherwise, if there is already a certificate where you have given your Aadhaar number or driver’s licence, we are developing a facility where you can link your passport also on your self-declaration, and we will verify at the back-end that your passport details also are similar to the details given.
In terms of domestic travel, is there a need for more interface with airlines and other transportation entities for verification of certificates, considering the Centre has suggested fully vaccinated people don’t need negative RT-PCR test for inter-state travel?
We don’t need to give the interface because the certificate we issue after the vaccination is verifiable. The certificate is FHIR-compliant, and we have the complete data set —vaccine type, vaccination date and the name of the person who vaccinated and details of vaccinees. It is encrypted with the private key of the government of India. Our public key is the ‘verify certification’ section on the CoWin website. For ensuring verification, we already have an encrypted QR code, which can be verified.
Are you sharing your application programming interface (API) for CoWin?
There are no curbs either on the number or the type of company that can apply for API. In fact, we have about 125 applications for APIs. We shared API keys with 34 entities such as Paytm, 1mg, Apollo Hospitals, Air Asia, and others, and also governments of Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka. APIs can be accessed to write an application. They may not be in the business of vaccination at all. Paytm is not into vaccination, but they have the API. Obviously, it is the Centre or state governments who will authorize vaccination centres. Vaccinating people and getting access to APIs are two different things.
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