The CoWIN story started with the pandemic, but it won’t end with it
At the end of 2020, even before the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines, the Indian government had started preparations to launch the largest vaccination campaign in the world. Not only would this be a huge exercise, but we also needed to reach for vaccines for the most vulnerable first. This had to be done in a transparent and orderly manner, without unnecessary stress on the population or the medical system.
Our Prime Minister foresaw that India would need an end-to-end digital solution to support every step of the process. In a crisis, when all resources are stretched to the limit, such a system could help optimize the use of resources for maximum coverage and efficiency. This led to the start of the CoWIN journey in January 2021.
CoWIN, or Covid-19 Vaccine Intelligence Network, was developed in record time, with scalability, modularity and interoperability in mind. With rampant lockdowns amid the pandemic, a virtual office was set up on a video conferencing platform and different teams including developers from various parts of India worked remotely. On January 16, 2021, the Prime Minister unveiled CoWIN as well as the launch of the national vaccination campaign against Covid-19. It marked the beginning of a story that has touched over a billion lives in less than 18 months. The journey of CoWIN, as we see it today, spanned three main phases, with multiple additions thereafter.
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In Phase 1, the enrollment process was moved online, where healthcare workers and frontline workers received system-generated notifications about their immunization schedule. Due to the nature of their work, many were unable to attend their vaccination appointments. The government learned the lesson and moved from a supply-driven to a demand-driven approach to vaccinations.
This was a key learning to make access to vaccines ubiquitous. In subsequent phases, beneficiaries were allowed to both register in person and online, as well as choose the location and time slot as per their convenience. An assisted mode was also made available through the more than 240,000 Common Service Centers (CSCs) and a helpline number.
With a country as diverse as ours, inclusiveness was a key design principle for CoWIN. The platform has been made available in English and 11 regional languages to allow citizens of multiple states to easily access the platform. To circumvent the lack of digital access, the platform allows up to six members to be registered under an account linked to a mobile number.
After ensuring a successful orchestration using the platform’s scalability and agile functionalities to vaccinate the over 45s, the platform’s APIs were made available to private actors at the start of phase III of the vaccination campaign. People over the age of 18 had several options to choose from among private and public service providers. At first, Aarogya Setu was the platform’s only app for people, besides the web portal.
Once access to its services was opened via APIs, more than 100 applications have been integrated with CoWIN to provide search, reservation and certification functionalities to their users.
Supporting the vaccination of one-sixth of humanity is no trivial task for any digital system. Scale was of the utmost importance in achieving this feat. Initially, CoWIN was doing about 200,000 doses per day. However, we knew we would soon have to resize this a hundred times. The strength of a technical system is often overlooked for the more visible features of its user interface – unless, of course, the system is not working, which was not an option with CoWIN.
Because it performed so well, CoWIN did not receive due credit for its engineering, despite scaling every 100 million milestone faster than any other platform. It has reached the coveted milestone of one billion registered users that only a handful of platforms have been able to reach globally, and none in such a short time.
A key feature of the platform has been its modularity and scalability. The CoWIN team has kept pace with the changing political environment and scientific research and developments in vaccine delivery. It is never that CoWIN became the bottleneck or delayed the implementation of our vaccination policies or campaigns. While many naysayers tried to write off the platform in national and international media, we knew what we were building was the right architecture for scale. Time and time again, CoWIN has proven to be one of the most secure and robust platforms with minimal data entry and no risk of personal data hacking. The figures and the success of the vaccination campaign speak for themselves.
As we look forward to a post-pandemic future, the inevitable question is what will we do with CoWIN when no other Covid-19 vaccines are given? We have deliberated on this and the decision is to transform the platform into a universal vaccination platform. DIVOC’s accreditation service, used in CoWIN, has proven to be a game changer in the world of digital certificates. With this service being implemented in five more countries after India and receiving global acceptance for its veracity and solid architecture, we are also planning to open the accreditation service to more use cases in the domain of health.
CoWIN’s journey has been instrumental in helping us gain confidence that digital health systems can be successfully managed at billion-plus scale, while being inclusive. Seeing this success, other countries have also expressed their interest in using CoWIN and using it as a bridge to erect their digital health systems. In response to this new interest, our Prime Minister proposed CoWIN as a free, digital public good to be adopted by all nations of the world.
The story of CoWIN has truly had national impact and significance. And while the story began during the pandemic, it won’t end with the pandemic: it will morph into a repurposed digital platform for more healthcare use cases.
The author is the CEO of the National Health Authority and the chairman of the Empowered Group of Vaccine Administration (EGVAC)