India has decided to temporarily halt all major exports of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, locally produced by the Serum Institute of India, to meet its domestic demand as the country grapples with a renewed surge of infections, Reuters reported on Thursday. India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, has exported more than six crore doses but given only about 5.31 crore to its own people.
“Everything else has taken a backseat, for the time being at least,” a government official told the news agency. “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 move came two days after the Centre announced it will expand its vaccination campaign from April 1 to include everyone above 45, and denied there was any shortage of vaccines in the country. The decision also comes at a time when the government’s highly publicised vaccine diplomacy is being questioned by the Opposition, with several states expressing fears over the dwindling supplies.
Unidentified officials told the Hindustan Times that there will not be a complete ban on exports, though supplies to other countries will be made only after meeting domestic needs. “We have helped countries around the world with commercial supplies and grants of vaccines and we will continue to do so,” an official said, adding that the future exports would depend on the pace at which India is able to scale up its production capacities.
While government officials said that India will honour its commercial deals and export commitments, the UNICEF told Reuters that the move will affect supplies to the GAVI/World Health Organization-backed global COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative, through which 64 lower-income countries are supposed to get doses from the Serum Institute. The United Nations body is the programme’s procurement and distributing partner.
“We understand that deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines to lower-income economies participating in the COVAX facility will likely face delays following a setback in securing export licences for further doses of COVID-19 vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India (SII), expected to be shipped in March and April,” UNICEF said, according to the news agency. “COVAX is in talks with the Government of India with a view to ensuring deliveries as quickly as possible.”
COVAX has so far received 17.7 million (1.77 crore) AstraZeneca doses from the Serum Institute. Many countries are relying on the programme to immunise their citizens, and Serum has already delayed shipments to Brazil, Britain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
With 1,17,87,534 cases, India has reported the highest number of coronavirus infections after the United States and Brazil. On Thursday, the country registered 53,476 coronavirus infections, the highest daily rise since October 23. With 251 deaths, the toll rose to 1,60,692.
Currently, only the elderly and those over 45 with other health conditions are eligible for vaccinations in India. Health and other frontline workers were first in line when India began its drive on January 16.