The move is a blow to global vaccine distribution as India’s Serum Institute is the biggest supplier of shots to COVAX.
India itself has received more than one-third of the nearly 28 million Indian-made AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses delivered so far by the global programme for poor countries, according to data from UNICEF and a source.
The revelation that most of the doses India supplied to the COVAX programme never actually left the country could add to criticism of India and COVAX after New Delhi decided this month to delay big exports of vaccines that poor countries around the world had been counting on.
Data on UNICEF’s website shows that India received 10 million doses of vaccine from COVAX, the most of any country. Nigeria is second with about 4 million doses. Many poor nations entirely reliant on the programme have so far received few to no vaccines.
Hundreds of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine made under license by the Serum Institute of India (SII) make up the vast bulk of the initial order for COVAX, the global system set up to vaccinate people mainly in poor countries.
Fifty million doses were meant to be delivered in April, but much of that order is likely to be delayed by India’s new export restrictions.
The SII has an agreement with COVAX to supply its licensed version of the AstraZeneca drug, which it sells as Covishield, to 64 countries.
COVAX, led by the World Health Organization and the Gavi alliance of countries, charities and companies, aims to provide 2 billion vaccine doses this year. UN children’s agency UNICEF distributes the shots.
But the programme has so far gotten off to a slow start, with officials complaining that rich countries have hoarded most early doses of vaccines.
The source, who had direct knowledge of the matter but was not authorised to speak on it publicly, said India had received its 10 million doses early, as COVAX had to wait for the vaccine to be approved for emergency use by the WHO before it could distribute doses globally.
The WHO authorisation came through in mid-February, while India approved the vaccine in January and rolled out its own inoculation campaign on January 16. The source did not specify precisely when India received the doses from COVAX.
India, the world’s biggest maker of vaccines, has reported 12 million COVID-19 cases, the most after the United States and Brazil.
So far, it has exported 64 million vaccine doses, more than the 60.4 million inoculations given at home. The government is under pressure to step up the domestic vaccine programme.
India’s move to suspend major vaccine exports has alarmed many countries, mainly in Africa and Asia.
Last week, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control, a continent-wide body, said last week he felt “helpless”.
India’s health ministry, Gavi and UNICEF did not immediately respond to requests for comment.