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Private companies start offering vaccination slot booking facility, Paytm first to launch service

Paytm on Monday announced that it is now allowing Covid 19 vaccination slot bookings directly on its app. The government has so far accepted applications of 81 private companies that want to offer vaccination slot booking services, RS Sharma, CEO of the National Health Authority, told CNBC TV18. Until now, third-party apps and services could help citizens find open slots based on pincode or district, but appointments could only be booked on government-run platforms like CoWIN, Aarogya Setu, and Umang.

“The total applications thus far is 125. We have accepted 91 applications which include 10 governments and 81 private applications like Paytm, MakeMyTrip, Dr. Reddy Laboratories, Max Healthcare, ICICI Lombard, Infosys, Apollo Hospitals, state governments of Kerala, UP, Karnataka, and WestBengal, ISRO, IIT Bombay, etc. They are at an advanced stage and it is a matter of days when they will start operating.” – RS Sharma to CNBC TV18

“It is our endeavour to help India come out of this pandemic a lot stronger. Our vaccine finder will help citizens seamlessly book slots at the nearest centre and get vaccinated,” a Paytm spokesperson told MediaNama.

Why are private players enabling vaccine booking features?

Ever since the government opened the vaccine registration for those between 18-45 years, many have had issues booking an appointment on the CoWIN portal. The website crashed for a few minutes and was later restored, but other bugs continued to exist. While the government has smoothed out a lot of these issues, the CoWIN portal still has the following obstacles, which third-party developers are trying to address:

  1. There is no feature that alerts a user when an appointment slot becomes available. So the only way to grab a slot is to constantly check the CoWIN portal for openings.
  2. Users have to go through the cumbersome process of logging in with an OTP each time they wish to find and book a vaccination slot.

In addition to addressing the problems posed by the official CoWIN portal, private players might be enabling slot booking services for their own benefit such as to increase the usefulness and convenience offered by their platform. For example, Paytm showcases itself as a super-app, by providing this new feature not only can it add credibility to this claim, but it can also entice users to try other services offered on the Paytm app. Other private players like hospitals may be offering this service to make it more convenient for their patients. Patients can now directly use the Apollo website to book a vaccination slot at one of the group’s hospitals rather than sifting through the CoWIN portal.

How are private players enabling vaccine booking features?

Earlier in April, RS Sharma said that a comprehensive data capture policy needs to be put in place before allowing third-party apps and service access to the CoWIN application programming interfaces (APIs). Despite not formulating such a policy, the government opened up selected parts of the Co-WIN APIs to third parties, specifically the APIs for appointment vacancies search and vaccination certificate downloads.

This addressed one of the concerns with the official platform as third-party players developed vaccination alert apps that enabled users to register for alerts through notifications, email, Telegram and Twitter when slots open up in their desired area. Paytm was among those that offered such a service. However, the API to book appointments remained protected and users had to book the appointment through official government portals.

Towards the end of May, the government finally put a data capture policy in place in its guidelines for the use of CoWIN APIs by third-party players. These guidelines specify what data can be collected, how should data be collected, used, and stored, and what is prohibited. This paved the way for the government to start accepting requests from private players for the use of protected APIs.

Developers who wish to use protected APIs are required to comply with all the guidelines specified by the government including testing in a sandbox experiment before public release. Their services will be tested for safety, privacy, and security, RS Sharma said.

Last week, Reuters reported that Paytm, Infosys, and MakeMyTrip are among the companies that sought government approval for providing vaccination appointment registration services. Fifteen state agencies and healthcare companies like Apollo, Max, and 1mg also sought approval, the report added.

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