India delays big exports of AstraZeneca vaccine as Covid-19 cases surge

India has put a temporary hold on all major exports of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine made by Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine-maker, to meet domestic demand as infections rise, multiple sources confirmed.

A person close to the development said that in the light of rising demand for Covid-19 vaccines, the health ministry has conveyed to SII that it should prioritise deliveries to the government of India over export commitments. The entire production of 60 million doses in April will be supplied to the government.

India is, however, not officially banning Covid-19 vaccine exports. “This is a temporary move until the supply situation stabilises in the country,” said the person.

Covid vaccine inventories have hit a low at places like Mumbai, and the government is speeding up the procurement.

SII has supplied 65 million doses to the Indian government, and has exported a similar amount so far. It has an order book of 100 million doses for the GoI. SII will need nod from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) before it exports now.

The move will also affect supplies to the GAVI/WHO-backed COVAX vaccine-sharing facility through which more than 180 countries are expected to get doses, one of the sources said.

COVAX has so far received 17.7 million AstraZeneca doses from SII, of the 60.5 million doses India has shipped in total, and many countries are relying on the programme to immunise their citizens.

There have been no vaccine exports from India since Thursday, the foreign ministry's website showed, as the country expands its own immunisation effort.

“Everything else has taken a backseat, for the time being at least,” said a source. “No exports, nothing till the time the India situation stabilises. The government won’t take such a big chance at the moment when so many need to be vaccinated in India.”

The foreign ministry and SII did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

SII has already delayed shipments of the AstraZeneca drug to Brazil, Britain, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.

UNICEF, the UN children’s agency that is procuring and distributing vaccines for COVAX, had no comment.

COVAX has a deal to buy 1.1 billion doses of the AstraZeneca and Novavax shots that the SII is making in bulk, mainly for low- and middle-income countries.

UNICEF in Vietnam said in a statement on Wednesday that vaccine production issues had led to delays in deliveries to all countries that were due to receive vaccines through COVAX. It did not specify the origin of those delays, although Vietnam was not expected to receive doses from SII.

The Union Cabinet decided this week to widen its inoculation drive by including everyone above 45 from April 1, and many states battling a surge in infections have demanded that all adults be covered.

With 11.7 million cases, India has reported the highest number of coronavirus infections after the United States and Brazil.

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