India vaccine-maker hopes to share shots by end of the year

The Serum Institute of India, the main supplier to UN-backed COVAX scheme, says it will continue to scale up and prioritise India.

An employee monitors vials of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, at the Serum Institute of India Hadapsar plant in Pune, Maharashtra [File: Bloomberg]

The Serum Institute of India (SII) has said that it hopes to start delivering coronavirus vaccine doses to COVAX and to other countries by the end of the year, a delay that will significantly set back global efforts to immunise people against COVID-19.

The institute is the world’s biggest vaccine-maker and the main supplier of COVID-19 vaccine doses to the UN-backed COVAX scheme, which aims to distribute coronavirus vaccines to low-income countries at no cost. SII said in March that it was postponing all exports of coronavirus vaccines to deal with the explosive surge of cases on the subcontinent.

“SII has delivered more than 200 million doses,” the Serum Institute said Tuesday in a statement posted to its Twitter account. The company said that in the past few days, there had been “intense discussion” on the decision of the Indian government and vaccine manufacturers about the possible export of vaccines.

“We continue to scale up and prioritize India,” the company said. “We also hope to start delivering to COVAX and other countries by the end of the year.”

Battling the world’s biggest jump in coronavirus infections, India halted vaccine exports a month ago after donating or selling more than 66 million doses. The move has left countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and many in Africa scrambling for alternate supplies.

A healthcare worker gives a dose of vaccine to a woman inside a classroom of a school, which has been converted into a temporary vaccination centre, in New Delhi [File:Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

The World Health Organization, which co-leads COVAX, on Monday called on vaccine makers outside India to advance supplies to the programme given the shortfall from the South Asian country.

Three Indian government sources, who spoke to Reuters news agency on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to talk to media on the subject, said India’s vaccination drive will now take priority over exports as its tally of coronavirus infections crossed 25 million and daily death toll hit a record high.

“We don’t have to officially convey to all countries as we are not obligated to do,” one of the sources said about the decision to hold back exports. “It was internally discussed and some countries were asked not to expect export commitments given the current Indian situation.”

The source did not name the countries told about the delay.

The other two sources said the exact timing for resuming exports could change depending on how soon India is able to control the second wave of cases that has overwhelmed the health system.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs, which is coordinating and overseeing all vaccine exports, did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

‘Truly dreadful wave’

SII had previously expected shipments to restart from June.

Asked about the October timeline, COVAX co-lead GAVI told Reuters at least 140 million doses it had expected from SII by the end of May will now remain in India.

“As India confronts a truly dreadful wave of the pandemic, Indian vaccine production, including the 140 million vaccine doses initially destined for COVAX, have been committed to protecting its own citizens,” a GAVI spokeswoman said in an email.

“We offer the government of India our full support in their effort to bring the virus under control and stand ready to help in any way we can.”

COVAX has a deal with SII to deliver 1.1 billion doses of either the AstraZeneca or Novavax shots.

The head of UNICEF on Monday asked G7 countries to donate supplies to COVAX as an emergency measure to address a severe shortfall caused by disruptions to Indian vaccine exports.

UNICEF, which is helping supply COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX, estimates the supply shortfall at about 190 million by the end of June.

United States President Joe Biden said on Monday his country would export at least 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots, on top of 60 million AstraZeneca doses he had already planned to give to other countries.

Biden’s move came as WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned the world has reached a situation of “vaccine apartheid”, calling on wealthier nations and vaccine producers to increase vaccine sharing.

Source: Reuters