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Qualcomm’s outgoing CEO is the ultimate tech survivor

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Qualcomm's outgoing CEO is the ultimate tech survivor


This is the web version of Data Sheet, a daily newsletter on the business of tech. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox. 

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf must have been born with a bullseye on his back.

During his seven-year tenure, activist hedge fund JANA Partners demanded that he break up the company; antitrust authorities on three continents investigated and sued the company; leading customer Apple defected to rival chipmaker Intel and also sued Qualcomm; tech acquirer and Broadcom CEO Hock Tan initiated a hostile takeover of the company; the prior CEO tried to take the company private; and China blocked Qualcomm’s bid to buy NXP Semiconductors.

Through it all, Mollenkopf persevered and sought to wall off those “external stimuluses,” as he described them at Brainstorm Tech in 2019, from the bulk of the company’s engineers, scientists, and marketers. “They’re a distraction to me and about 10 other people,” he told me on the conference stage.

So maybe it’s no surprise that having finally conquered all of Qualcomm’s demons and seen the company’s stock reach record heights a few weeks ago, Mollenkopf is calling it quits. As Robert noted in yesterday’s newsletter, Mollenkopf announced on Tuesday that he’ll retire in June and hand the reins to his top lieutenant, company president Cristiano Amon. “The mistake is to go too long,” Mollenkopf told CNBC yesterday, saying the company will be in “very, very capable hands.”

Wall Street has confidence too. Qualcomm’s stock climbed 3% on Tuesday after the CEO transition announcement and is up 75% over the past year.

That’s partly because while Mollenkopf was fighting off the many outside challenges, Amon has been leading the charge inside the company to take the industry lead in 5G, the next generation of wireless technology.

The two men are about the same age (Mollenkopf at 52 is two years senior to Amon), have similar engineering backgrounds, and have both been with the company for decades. Amon was the “natural choice,” Bernstein Research analyst Stacy Rasgon noted yesterday, and is not expected to make major changes at Qualcomm.

Still, taking over at the top comes with its own challenges. Analysts expect Amon to expand Qualcomm’s 5G technology rapidly beyond phones into cars, drones, and all kinds of Internet-connected gear, but U.S. wireless carriers are lagging in deploying 5G. And though Mollenkopf won back Apple’s business, the iPhone maker is developing its own competing technology and could defect again. Looming deep in the background is Nvidia, now the most valuable U.S. chipmaker. Nvidia has been an also-ran in mobile chips but its pending $40 billion acquisition of Arm will transform it into a major player overnight if and when the deal closes.

It should provide plenty of action for Amon and Qualcomm for the next seven years.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
[email protected]



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This female-founded face mask brand had a wait-list of more than 40,000 customers

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This female-founded face mask brand had a wait-list of more than 40,000 customers


This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

The pandemic has fueled a cottage industry of different products that never seemed necessary in everyday life, but nothing has come close (or perhaps, become more necessary) than the face mask.

Anyone can easily make their own face mask or covering, but there is no shortage in the sheer number of options on the market now. And yet few, if any, have the instantly recognizable presence as Evolvetogether. The New York City–based brand produces the only consumer-facing, FDA-approved medical masks currently on the market—and have already sold 10 million masks in the few short months since launching last year.

As an Asian-American jewelry designer with no previous experience in this field, Cynthia Sakai quickly pivoted to the face mask business after realizing the demand for accessible medical masks for the general public. While most other brands were producing cloth-made options, Sakai felt that these were not the most hygienic, and she therefore sought out a factory and process that would ensure Evolvetogether masks were sterile from start to finish. In just one month, Sakai launched the medical mask company—privately funded to this day—with just 11 employees.

After some of the most popular and followed celebrities (including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Katie Holmes, and Jennifer Lopez) were photographed wearing the masks, Evolvetogether had more than 40,000 people on a wait-list at one point, with the masks selling out in less than a week of being restocked.

Evolvetogether relies primarily on direct-to-consumer sales, while at least 30% are devoted to wholesale. Nordstrom, for instance, tested the brand online and after selling out quickly, picked up the masks for all its stores. Evolvetogether has ramped up production and is currently producing between 450,000 and 500,000 masks per week, with the projection of churning out more than 16 million annually.

Sakai recently spoke with Fortune about the inspiration and development process behind Evolvetogether, and what it’s been like to scale the wildly popular brand in just a few months.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Evolvetogether founder Cynthia Sakai.
Courtesy of Evolvetogether

Fortune: What inspired you to launch a face mask brand? When did you make the switch from jewelry to face masks?

Sakai: I’m from New York City and saw firsthand the tragic effects of COVID-19’s first wave. It was a real moment of crisis, and everyone was either in shock or finding a way to help. We knew mask wearing was super important, but there were a lot of knockoff masks, misinformation, and price gouging happening. Affordable, tested medical masks just didn’t exist for consumers. Cloth masks didn’t offer the same levels of protection, and medical masks looked super clinical. There was a real need for affordable, easy-to-wear, and stylish masks that actually worked.

I didn’t know how to make masks, but I did know from Vita Fede, my existing jewelry business, how to make good quality products that people were proud to wear. It was surprisingly easy to apply those same aesthetic and design principles to masks—and bring the first consumer-facing medical mask to market during a period of crisis that offered SGS-tested protection, with greater than 98% bacterial filtration efficiency (BFE) and 95% particle filtration efficiency (PFE) protection. 

Evolvetogether is currently the only consumer-facing, FDA-approved medical face mask on the market, and the New York City–based brand has already sold 10 million masks in the few months since launching last year.
Courtesy of evolvetogether

Evolvetogether is touted to offer the only consumer-facing, FDA approved disposable medical face mask on the market. What does that certification require? What went into the development process?

Since day one, our focus has been on performance-tested quality because people’s health is at stake. The first thing we did was find a manufacturing partner that met our litmus tests of being able to produce genuine medical masks, was socially responsible, and was able to produce masks at scale to ensure they were affordable. We were fortunate to find a FDA-registered factory that had long specialized in production of quality personal protective equipment (PPE) for governments and hospitals.

From there, we were able to develop masks that were designed for daily living—loosening the ear loops, making the interior softer, adding breathability. And of course, the aesthetic details like crafting custom colors that blend seamlessly with a range of outfits and stamping global coordinates as a reminder we’re all connected no matter our race, religion, gender, or where we live. And most importantly, we went the extra mile of using third-party testing by SGS [an inspection, verification, testing, and certification company] so customers could feel confident that our masks performed exactly as we said. 

The three-ply construction features a water-resistant outer layer, a meltblown center, and a water-absorbing inner layer.
Courtesy of evolvetogether

It’s incredible how fast these masks started appearing everywhere, not just on celebrities in paparazzi shots but also on people walking down the street. What has your social media strategy been like? Did you work with influencers and/or celebrities in any fashion to promote the face masks?

It has been incredible, especially considering how organic it’s been. To date, we’ve never done a single paid promotion or even a paid social ad.

At the heart of it, people who tried our medical masks really loved them and word of mouth has driven our growth. When we launched, I sent masks out to all the stylists, editors, and celebrities with whom I had strong existing relationships from my jewelry business and asked them to try out the masks, and it sort of just took off. I think people really responded to not only the aesthetic, but the quality. They could see and feel the difference—and we had the SGS-testing and FDA-registration to back up our claims.

On social, we’re always reposting people who have tagged us while wearing their masks—they’re proud to wear an evolvetogether mask, and we’re proud to play a part in keeping them and their communities healthy.

That said, you have generated an incredible wait-list. Where does the wait-list stand now? What has it been like to scale a business so rapidly? Have you grown your employee base since last spring?

Oh, gosh. Well, launching a business during a pandemic and a lockdown (while also navigating unexpected rapid growth) has been challenging, to say the least. Because we were meeting a time-sensitive need, we had to move quickly and couldn’t afford to make a lot of mistakes or second-guess ourselves.

Pre-COVID, I’d travel to the factory and do a hands-on review of both products and packaging. Now I spend hours writing lists of everything that can go wrong and how we might resolve it. We had to be ready to identify issues, react, learn, move on. I think that agile, forward-thinking mindset really helped us when we went from fulfilling a few hundred orders a month to upwards of 40,000 orders a month and had massive wait-lists. We had to figure out big infrastructure issues in real time—from ramping up production to securing a larger fulfillment house to expanding our customer care team. Our factory has the capacity to produce up to 7 million masks a week, helping us keep up with the demand of our direct-to-consumer, wholesale, and collaborations projects. And even though we still sell out of some styles, we—finally—are past having a wait-list. 

It was hard, but we were able to do it because we have partners we trust and we could move quickly within a digital-only workplace. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done, including hiring 15 people in New York City during a pandemic. It’s been a wild ride, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

At its peak in mid-September our wait-list was about 40,000 people who preordered roughly 1 million masks. We kept selling out through the fall and finally caught up toward late October—though our new styles are still selling out quite fast. For example, when we recently launched “Tokyo,” our new gray medical mask, both the adult and kids’ versions sold out the same day and the current stock is now on a wait-list. Fortunately, our current wait-lists are much, much more reasonable thanks to the infrastructure investments we made during the fall to prevent these long waits!

Manufacturing is made up of many parts and processes, so we knew that our solution also needed to be multifaceted. We ramped up production for our core colors to ensure we’re consistently meeting that demand regardless of sales surges on any one particular style. We brought in more machines for our line and tripled workers. We vetted and contracted backup factories who met our high criteria to help work through backlog in case of overflow. We also worked on securing more materials pre- and postproduction—both ordering more raw materials for the masks and moving to a new packaging supplier in order to secure larger volumes of packaging so we wouldn’t bottleneck production.

We’ve actually struggled the most with what’s hardest for us to control: fulfillment. When we started, we were shipping directly out of our office, which was fine while we were fulfilling just a few hundred orders at a time, but clearly not sustainable as we grew. We then onboarded [third-party logistics], but we needed to switch to a different one who could handle sudden surges of orders—all while nationwide mail delivery delays were happening. 

The “NYC”—a classic white mask—is marked with New York City’s geographical coordinates as a nod to the company’s home base.
Courtesy of evolvetogether

Evolvetogether started out as privately funded; is that still the case?

Yes, we remain privately funded.

What are you working on next? Are there new versions of the masks coming out? What are your plans for production and the business once we’re past the pandemic?

Since day one we’ve thought about evolvetogether as a greater story, not just a single product or transaction. That’s allowed us to really home in on what matters most to us: making thoughtfully designed daily essentials that are good quality and make a positive impact.

We actually put out a survey recently to our customers asking them about new products and what they care about, and the response rate and engagement were incredible. We’re excited to take that feedback and use it to introduce new products including sustainable clothing, convenient travel goods, more health and wellness items, and even new charity collaborations for our masks.

More must-read lifestyle and entertainment coverage from Fortune:

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Chinese consumers are turning on Jack Ma and the Big Tech they once revered

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Use Of Ride-Sharing Services In Shanghai As Bicycle-Sharing Booms


In 2014, a group of university students in Beijing founded Ofo, a bike-sharing startup that let customers scan QR codes to rent bikes for short rides around cities, picking up and dropping off the bikes wherever they wished.

The convenience and ease of dockless bike shares spawned competing startups like Mobike and Bluegogo, with each brand distinguished by the bright colors of its bicycles. The bikes became ubiquitous on the streets and sidewalks of China’s biggest cities, and the startups attracted billions in investments, turning founders like Dai Wei, the CEO of Ofo, into celebrity entrepreneurs.

But four years later, at least five Chinese bike-share startups had gone bankrupt, and a Chinese court revealed in June 2019 that Ofo, the sector’s pioneer that was once valued at more than $2 billion, had “basically no assets” and was unable to pay the significant debts it owed to suppliers and customers.

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Millions of bike-share users, unable to recoup the deposits they had paid as part of the programs, took their grievances to social media. There, they accused the companies of wasting billions of dollars, littering city streets with clumps of unused two-wheelers, and failing to return their money.

A commuter rides an Ofo bicycle in Shanghai in May 2017. Ofo was part of the boom—and bust—of China’s bike-sharing industry.
Qilai Shen—Bloomberg/Getty Images

In one viral post, a user in China noted that he only received a refund after posing as a foreigner. The hashtag, “pretend to be foreign and Ofo refunds immediately,” attracted over 240 million views on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform. Users claimed the company was prioritizing its global image over its local customer base.

Some users took their complaints offline. In December 2018, hundreds of people bundled in thick winter coats lined up outside Ofo’s office building in Beijing to demand their $14 deposits back from the beleaguered startup. Some waited for hours only to leave with nothing but Ofo’s promise that their deposits would be refunded within three days. Some received refunds, but others are still waiting. In February 2020, Ofo rebranded as a shopping app, offering users a discount on new purchases instead of a cash refund for their deposits.

“It was pretty visibly embarrassing for everyone involved,” says Dev Lewis, a fellow at Hong Kong–based think tank Digital Asia Hub.

Until then, the Chinese public had mostly glorified its national tech champions and the billionaires they minted. Early tech success stories like Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that Jack Ma founded in 1999, were the subject of national pride, lauded for proving to the world China’s economic and technological ascendance.

But as Chinese technology blossomed, so did its role in the lives of everyday people. A handful of apps owned by an even smaller number of companies now mediate the most routine tasks in China, from eating to shopping to booking medical appointments, making any allegation of abuse especially personal for users. Outrage over the downfall of Ofo and other bike-sharing unicorns was among the first indications that public sentiment toward homegrown technology companies was starting to turn.

The golden era of Chinese tech 

For years, Jack Ma was the unequivocal symbol of China’s tech success, inspiring legions with his personal tale of going from high school teacher to founder of two of China’s most prominent tech firms: Alibaba and its sister company, the fintech titan Ant Group. He became the poster boy for the government’s campaign to spur domestic innovation. Beijing pledged in 2006 to make the country “an innovative society” by 2020 and a global tech leader by 2050.

Today, tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent, which runs the billion-user “superapp” WeChat, have only increased their presence in people’s daily lives, each of them operating platforms with user metrics that dwarf the populations of most countries.

2019 Jack Ma Awards Rural Teachers & Headmasters In China
Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma attends an awards show for teachers and headmasters on Jan. 6, 2020, in Sanya, China. A onetime teacher himself, Ma became the poster boy for China’s tech boom.
Wang HE—Getty Images

As China’s tech sector grew, people started referring to the period as “the era of Ma Yun,” using Ma’s Chinese name.

The state-run People’s Daily newspaper in 2013 ran a photo gallery of Ma, with pictures spanning his youth to middle age and headlined, “Reform Era: ‘The Great Times’ for Ma Yun.” The piece proudly detailed his rise from a Hangzhou boy who “failed the college entrance exam twice” to ranking “as one of the world’s billionaires.”

Six years later, that same paper published an editorial declaring that “there is no so-called Ma Yun era, but only an era that has Ma Yun in it,” underscoring how some tech behemoths—and Ma in particular—had fallen from grace.

The bubble begins to burst

After the burst of China’s bike-sharing bubble in 2018, other scandals followed, hardening some consumers’ anti-tech sentiment.

Big tech platforms like food delivery service Meituan, ride-hailer Didi, and online travel agency Ctrip are accused of compiling consumer purchasing information and other data, and then using that data to charge higher prices to certain consumers. The practice is so pervasive that it has earned a name in China: “big-data backstabbing.”

In 2019, the Beijing Consumers Association found in a survey that 88% of Chinese consumers believed that online shopping platforms exploited user data to maximize prices for customers. Then this week, the government-backed China Consumers Association accused Chinese tech giants of wielding data to “bully” consumers, and called for more regulation.

Use Of Ride-Sharing Services In Shanghai As Bicycle-Sharing Booms
Bicycles from Ofo, Xiaoming Danche, and others parked on a sidewalk in Shanghai in May 2017. Clusters of unused two-wheelers became proof of China’s oversaturated bike-sharing market.
Qilai Shen—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Meituan, which controls 90% of China’s food delivery market along with delivery app Ele.me, also came under particular fire in December for allegedly charging some customers double in delivery fees compared with others. A hashtag about the incident gained over 580 million views on Weibo, with one user commenting, “Where are the government regulations in this case?”

Public anger at tech platforms has extended beyond their treatment of customers to how the companies manage their employees.

On Monday, videos circulated on social media of Liu Jin, a delivery driver for Ele.me, setting himself on fire to protest thousands of renminbi in unpaid wages, renewing public anger at delivery platforms’ treatment of the drivers whose labor makes them so profitable.

In September 2020, China’s Renwu magazine published an investigative report on food delivery drivers that revealed that workers are subject to a strict algorithm that fines drivers for late deliveries and pressures them into reckless driving.

The article went viral, prompting Meituan and Ele.me to relax delivery time targets for their drivers.

Weibo users weren’t impressed with the corporate response: The most-upvoted comment on Ele.me’s public statement said drivers would use the extra time to pick up more orders instead of driving more safely, and it accused the company of “treating the symptom, not the cause.” 

For white-collar tech workers, meanwhile, China’s tech industry is notorious for its long working hours and high burnout rates. Tech founders like Jack Ma have endorsed controversial work tactics like “996”—working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week—saying such a schedule provides “the happiness and rewards of hard work.”

Recently, tech employees have become more vocal in their opposition to the 996 mindset imposed by executives. In 2019, Chinese web developers who worked for the e-commerce firms Youzan and JD.com created a GitHub page, 996.ICU, to protest the companies’ long hours.

Meituan Delivery Drivers As Company Reports Earnings
A food delivery courier for Meituan in Shanghai, on Nov. 29, 2020. Meituan drew consumer ire for delivery windows that reportedly encouraged drivers to operate recklessly.
Qilai Shen—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The debate about overwork ignited again in January when e-commerce company Pinduoduo—whose founder Colin Huang became China’s second-richest man last year—confirmed that a 23-year-old Pinduoduo employee died on Dec. 29, collapsing after leaving work at 1:30 a.m. Less than two weeks later, another Pinduoduo employee, a male engineer who joined the company in July, died by suicide. Pinduoduo said it has set up psychological counseling services for all of its employees in the wake of these deaths.

After the first employee died, a Pinduoduo hashtag circulated on Weibo with more than 250 million views and thousands of users weighing in to criticize the tech firm’s work culture and wondering if the employee’s overtime hours had led to her death. After the second employee died, Pinduoduo, in a statement to Fortune, did not comment on the company’s work culture, but said it is doing “everything [it] can” to support the worker’s family and loved ones.

One Weibo user said the exploitation of workers was “the essence of 996.” Another user called it “ironic” that another popular Weibo search term was Pinduoduo founder Colin Huang’s net worth and added, “capitalists are bloodsuckers.”

The backlash

The consumer dissatisfaction with tech giants dovetails with China’s growing wealth gap and an increasing lack of social mobility. China now has more billionaires than the U.S., but some 600 million people still live on less than $150 per month. Chinese regulators seem to be latching onto the blowback, seizing it as an opportunity to tighten the rules on tech firms and divert blame for China’s economic injustices away from Beijing.

“There are signs that the general public opinion and sentiment is now turning against tech companies,” says Lewis. “It’s sort of creating a window of opportunity that…the government can choose to ride if they want to, to drive home some regulations on the platforms.” 

No one can attest to Beijing’s newfound regulatory mandate more than Jack Ma.

In October, the flamboyant billionaire delivered a searing speech in Shanghai, in which he criticized Chinese financial regulation as “outdated” and accused Chinese banks of running on a “pawnshop mentality.”

Days later, regulators halted the initial public offering of Ant Group, Ma’s fintech firm, on the eve of its $37 billion dual listing that promised to be the biggest IPO in corporate history. Officials said the company needed to comply with new regulatory requirements before it could list. Ant and Ma received little sympathy online after the IPO’s suspension. Weibo users largely sided with the regulators, calling the once revered Ma “an egotistical tech villain” who “thinks he’s above the law.” 

There’s no new date for Ant’s IPO, and Ma has not been seen in public since his speech in Shanghai.

Much of the online anger focused on Ant’s lending service, which made up almost 40% of its revenue in the first half of 2020. Some users of Huabei, Ant’s credit line, told the Financial Times that the service’s pop-up promotions sometimes lead them to accidentally pay for items on credit without knowing it, and make it easy to fall into debt.

“People have gotten into thousands of dollars of debt [using Huabei],” Lewis says. “People have been very skeptical of Huabei and their business practices to urge people to borrow more and shop more.”

One Weibo comment with over 3,600 likes said Ant’s suspended IPO was a good thing because “loan sharks shouldn’t be listed” on the stock market.

Ant now faces a slew of new regulations on its lending business that it must comply with before it can complete its IPO. Last month, China’s central bank publicly criticized Ant and advised the company to focus on its original business, online payments, and work to fix problems in its other businesses like the credit service.

The Ant saga isn’t the end of China’s regulatory spree, much of which is centered on weakening the market monopolies that Chinese tech firms have crafted for themselves.

In mid-December, China’s market regulator fined Alibaba Group and a Tencent-backed online literature platform under an anti-monopoly law and began a probe into a merger between two Tencent-backed livestreaming game companies. The market watchdog warned that “the Internet industry is not outside the oversight of anti-monopoly law.”

On Dec. 30, the regulator clamped down on tech giants again, fining three e-commerce companies for pricing irregularities and explicitly saying the fines were in response to consumer complaints about unfair price hikes and fraudulent promotions.

This week, the regulator reiterated that anti-monopoly regulation is a priority in 2021.

China’s tech giants and their founders are “facing more oversight and questioning about their practices” now than in previous years, says Jeffrey Towson, a private equity investor and former management professor at Peking University in Beijing. “The large China tech companies are very influential, but they are also very accountable to consumers via the government.”

According to Lewis, China has not experienced a blowout tech controversy on the scale of the 2018 Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal, which delivered a harsh wake-up call to U.S. and European consumers about how their online data could be misused.

But concerns around Huabei, “big-data backstabbing,” 996 culture, and the online defense of regulators’ actions against Jack Ma and Ant are all signs that Chinese consumers are growing wary of Big Tech.

“I think all these things are adding up to a much more regulated Chinese Internet ecosystem,” Lewis says. “This could be a point where we look back and say, this is when a lot of consumer demand and expectations of how tech should run starts to shift in a small way.”  

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Why India just might pull off ‘the world’s largest vaccination program’

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Why India just might pull off ‘the world’s largest vaccination program’


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India will launch its nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program on Saturday. Within eight months, it plans to vaccinate 300 million people—nearly equivalent to the entire U.S. population. And that’s just the first phase of the country’s coronavirus vaccination drive that will eventually extend to India’s nearly 1.4 billion people.

India is the second-most populous country in the world, and after the U.S. has the second-most coronavirus cases in the world. A successful COVID-19 vaccine rollout will be crucial to lowering India’s daily new coronavirus cases and deaths.

The sheer magnitude of the effortthe government is aiming to administer 1.3 million shots per daywill pose a challenge, as will wrinkles that are somewhat unique to India. The country of nearly 1.4 billion, for instance, has 900 million citizens without regular access to the Internet.

Still, a December report by Fitch Solutions said India is well suited to pull off the feat—”The world’s largest vaccination program,” as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called it—even with the weak spots in its health care infrastructure. The report cited India’s “good track record” of mass vaccination drives as evidence that it can succeed.

Who will get India’s vaccine first?

India’s 10 million health care workers will receive the vaccine first, followed by 20 million frontline workers like police and sanitation staff. Next in line are people over 50 and people under 50 with co-morbidities— diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions that put them at increased risk for a severe case of COVID-19—who number around 270 million. After that, vaccines will become available to the broader population on a voluntary basis.

In December, India’s government released guidelines for states on how to vaccinate their residents in order to reach the 300 million target—around 20% of India’s population—by late summer. The instructions provided training modules for the health care workers administering the vaccines and handling the cold storage technology. The government will be using a digital platform called Co-WIN to track vaccine stocks, storage information, and who gets the doses.

Indian passengers wait in a queue for a body temperature check at Bandra train station in Mumbai, India, on Dec. 19, 2020.
Imtiyaz Shaikh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, India carried out the last of three vaccination “dry runs.” It administered dummy vaccines to health care workers at nearly 5,000 sites across the country to catch any blips before the real rollout starts.

After health care and other frontline workers receive the vaccine, the next high-risk group—people over 50—can register online with their phone number and some form of ID, then receive a text message telling them when and where they will get vaccinated. On the day of vaccination, they need to bring their ID for proof of identity. They can verify their identity with a range of proof, including driving licenses, passports, pension documents, and Aadhaar cards, India’s 12-digit national identification system that pulls an individual’s biometric data like fingerprints, irises, and photographs.

Once an individual is vaccinated, they will receive a QR code certificate to indicate so. The government hasn’t released information on how it plans to reach the hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have Internet access.

State governments will be in charge of vaccinations within their state, but the central government will bear the cost of the vaccinations, Modi said on Monday.

Which vaccines has India approved?

Modi has attached the “Made in India” label to both of the two vaccines that will distributed in the government’s campaign. One of them, Covaxin, is a homegrown vaccine from Indian pharmaceutical firm Bharat Biotech. The other was developed in the U.K. by Oxford University and pharma multinational AstraZeneca, but it’s being made in India by the Serum Institute of India, the largest manufacturer of vaccines by volume in the world, so Modi has hailed it as India’s own.

Both vaccines are administered in two separate doses, 28 days apart, and both can be stored at a normal fridge temperature of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius, which India’s vaccine transport and storage network can sustain. (Other COVID-19 vaccines, like those made by Pfizer and Moderna, require ultra-cold storage technology that is more scarce in India.)

Other countries, like the U.K., have approved and are rolling out the AstraZeneca vaccine, but India’s decision to give the green light to the Bharat vaccine has raised a few red flags.

A woman reacts while a health worker takes a nasal swab
A woman in New Delhi reacts while a health worker takes a nasal swab sample during the rapid antigen COVID-19 test drive in October 2020.
Pradeep Gaur/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

India’s drug regulator approved Bharat’s vaccine for emergency use on Jan. 4, but didn’t publish data about the vaccine’s efficacy. (Bharat said it would release its phase III trial efficacy data by March.) One day earlier, the regulatory panel had asked Bharat for more efficacy data before it approved the shot. The quick reversal prompted criticism from some health experts and groups, including the All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN), a health watchdog.

A Bharat representative and India’s Ministry of Health didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Malini Aisola, co-convener of AIDAN, wants more transparency into the panel’s decision and the efficacy data, and also wants the government to establish a publicly available monitoring system to track any adverse events that occur during the vaccine rollout.

India’s vaccine advantages

Chandrakant Lahariya, a vaccinologist and public health expert who has researched the history of vaccines in India, says that as far as logistics are concerned, India’s goal of inoculating 300 million people in the next six to eight months is “very much feasible.”

He points to India’s universal immunization program, which according to UNICEF is the largest public health program in the world. India vaccinates 26.5 million infants per year, for a number of diseases, as well as annual tetanus shots for 29 million pregnant women. The centers used for these vaccinations offer cross-country storage facilities and distribution points for the COVID-19 vaccine, including 29,000 cold chain points offering precise temperature customization for the doses.

“A majority of the existing facilities will be used, but a smaller number of makeshift facilities will also be created,” Lahariya says.

India also is known as the “pharmacy of the world” since it produces half the world’s total vaccine supply. India’s vaccine manufacturing ecosystem means that India is unlikely to suffer a shortage of essentials like glass vaccine vials, like the U.K. did. Unlike the U.S., India won’t have to import such materials from other countries.

India’s pharmaceutical manufacturing strength also helped it ramp up COVID-19 testing capacity last year. The government shepherded domestic test-makers into an online marketplace to more efficiently distribute testing supplies across the country. Indian manufacturers also helped the country move from a reliance on imported tests at the start of the outbreak to producing 75% of its COVID-19 tests domestically by May.

India established new high-throughput testing facilities that focused on shorter turnaround times for test results and limited exposure to infectious material for lab workers. The efforts helped India accelerate from 75,000 tests per day in May to 1 million tests a day in August. The testing capacity scale-up suggests India will be able to carry out a similar increase in vaccination capacity. If India can ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations at the same rate it did testing, it will be able to inoculate 250 million people by June, according to the Fitch report.

India is also launching its vaccination campaign as its daily COVID-19 caseload declines.

In the last week, India reported an average of 17,000 new infections per day, down from a peak of almost 98,000 in mid-September. It had recorded 10.5 million cases in total as of Friday. The government credits its nationwide lockdowns and public awareness campaigns for the drop-off, but health experts caution that people shouldn’t let their guard down because a new wave could come at any time.

Some scientists argue the actual number of people who’ve contracted the virus is around 200 million people, much higher than India’s official tally. One government-backed study used mathematical projections to estimate that almost one-third of people in India had contracted COVID-19.

Economist Ajay Shah, who researches economic policy and public administration in India, says that pockets of the Indian population may already have achieved herd immunity, which is the aim of the vaccination drive.

Seroprevalence tests in some parts of India last year found that a majority of the population in some areas tested positive for coronavirus antibodies—the proteins a person’s body produces in response to infection—indicating that those people had contracted and recovered from the virus and were, at least temporarily, immune to it.

“There is more population-scale seroprevalence in India than probably anywhere else in the world, and the role of immunization at best is to tip the system over into herd immunity if it has not already gone,” Shah says.

Lessons from the past?

India has marshaled its resources for a nationwide vaccination drive in the past, successfully eradicating polio in 2014 and for its smallpox eradication campaign in the 1970s.

In the 1960s, around 60% of the world’s smallpox cases were reported in India.

India worked with the World Health Organization in the following decade to train medical staff, organize publicity campaigns, and vaccinate huge numbers of people. The critical technological breakthrough was the development of a smallpox vaccine that remained stable at room temperature, says Shah. Room temperature vaccines could be transported to people in rural areas who lived far from the cold-chain storage facilities that the vaccine previously required.

In late 1974, 133,000 health workers visited 100 million households across 2,641 cities and more than half a million villages, isolating smallpox patients as well as their family members and neighbors and vaccinating all of them. The last smallpox case in India was recorded in May 1975, four years before smallpox was officially eradicated from the planet.

While the eradication of smallpox is an example of what Shah calls a “population-scale success story” of vaccination in India, its lessons hardly apply to the COVID-19 crisis. Smallpox infections were easy to spot, plus India’s population has more than doubled since then.

What’s more, Shah says, “The smallpox vaccine was rolled out in India over a total period of six years, and today nobody is going to accept a six-year rollout [of the COVID-19 vaccine].”

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