India resumes vaccine exports to 4 countries

The government had stopped vaccine exports as the brutal second wave hit India in April-May this year. It’s only after India had administered close to a billion doses of vaccines did the government relax restrictions. Commercial contracts were also kept in abeyance as production was procured for domestic use.

NEW DELHI: Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Iran have been the first recipients of resumed vaccine exports from India almost eight months after they were halted due to rising cases of Covid-19.

The government had stopped vaccine exports as the brutal second wave hit India in April-May this year. It’s only after India had administered close to a billion doses of vaccines did the government relax restrictions. Commercial contracts were also kept in abeyance as production was procured for domestic use.

India resumed its exports to the Covax facility with the first lot of doses landing in African countries. Adar Poonawalla, chief of Serum Institute of India, was quoted by Axios news website as saying that by this week, he expected Covishield doses to land in African countries.

“I think by the 10th of November, you’re gonna see the first — if not a bit sooner — you’re gonna see the first doses arrive in Africa,” Poonawalla told Axios. Once shipments begin, Poonawalla said around 30 million doses per month could be supplied to COVAX.

India now has a long list of vaccines — Covavax, Corbevax, ZyCovD, Gennova’s mRNA vaccine — at various stages of regulatory approval. The first 50 million doses of SII-produced Covavax will make its way to Indonesia this week though the vaccine is yet to be greenlighted by India’s DCGI, the WHO or US FDA.

While the government is focusing on getting more Indians covered by the second jab, it’s clear that supplies are no longer a constraint. Vaccine manufacturers are chomping at the bit, because they need to go out to the world with their exports.

However, there remain fears about a third wave and a repeat of the shortages faced during the second wave as well as uncertainties about production volumes and timelines of manufacturers. Here, government sources say they were hobbled by the slow rollout of Covaxin by Bharat Biotech. Without the SII doing the heavy lifting (over 88% doses were Covishield), India would not have been able to ramp up its vaccinations as rapidly as it did. Until mid-October, Bharat Biotech had only supplied around 11 crore doses compared to the 40 crore promised by the government to the Supreme Court. Sputnik V, the third vaccine approved by India, stopped production because Russia just could not supply enough. Until mid-October, they had supplied only 45 lakh against the 10 crore promised. In fact, globally, Russia has promised one billion vaccines, but hasn’t been able to provide more than 5 million.

This means large parts of Africa, Latin America and even Asia remain unserviced. China is moving aggressively, capturing markets, even though their vaccines have been shown to be well below par. Indian vaccine manufacturers are well-positioned to take a global lead on this.

With the developed world going in for boosters and scientific evidence tilting towards giving vulnerable populations boosters after 6-8 months, it won’t be long before India too has to take a call on them. For government regulators, this is all the more reason to hold on to vaccines for Indians.

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