03/29/2021, 16.17
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COVID-19: New Delhi freezes vaccine exports, putting poor countries at risk

With a surge in cases and Mumbai on the verge of a general lockdown, the Modi government is limiting exports and speeding up the domestic vaccination campaign. The export of some 40 million AstraZeneca doses from the Serum Institute of India will be delayed. The latter blames the US, which has banned the export of the raw material used in making the vaccine.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) –  In its fight against COVID-19, India has decided to reduce its vaccine exports. After authorising the export of more vaccines than those used in its domestic vaccination campaign, the Indian government a few days ago told local producers to give priority to domestic needs.

The order is not an export ban, but a temporary halt due to a huge surge in cases in various Indian states. In the last 24 a record 68,000 new cases have in fact been reported. Mumbai could find itself in a general lockdown soon.

The slowdown in vaccine exports is clearly visible on the Foreign Ministry's website, which shows export data in real time. In the last week, only 1.2 million doses left the country, a gift to Bangladesh, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered last Friday during a visit to Dhaka.

Since January, India has exported 63.3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, mostly manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune: 35.6 million through private trade agreements, and 17.8 million to COVAX, a global initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines to low-income countries, led by the World Health Organisation and the Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

About 10.1 million doses were bought by the Indian government and sent free of charge to other states as part of its “vaccine diplomacy”, a policy also pursued by China and Russia on the frontline.

The slowdown in exports has allowed India to sharply accelerate its own vaccination plan in the last week. Immunisations have topped 60 million and are proceeding at a rate close to three million a day.

By contrast, South Sudan is the only low-income countries in the COVAX scheme to receive 132,000 doses of vaccine from the SII.

This is likely to have a major impact considering that out of the 32 million vaccines distributed by COVAX so far to 60 countries, as many as 28 million are from AstraZeneca, 17.8 million made in India.

In fact, countries participating in the scheme were recently told that they can expect delays in future deliveries. Some 40 million AstraZeneca doses, which were expected for the end of March, are now set to be delivered in April, when an additional 50 million were supposed to be distributed.

“COVAX has notified all affected economies of potential delays. SII has pledged that, alongside supplying India, it will prioritize the COVAX multilateral solution for equitable distribution,” reads a statement on the GAVI website.

A few weeks ago, the Indian manufacturer blamed delays on the United States where the Biden administration invoked the Defense Production Act (a 1950 law that allows the requisition of wartime products) to block the export not only of the vaccine, but also of the raw material needed to manufacture it. According to SII CEO Adar Poonawalla, this slowed production capacity outside the United States.

Despite such disputes, the most accessible vaccines for low-income countries are China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm and (to a lesser extent) Russia’s Sputnik V. From a geopolitical point of view, the two powers could reap large dividends in Asia, Africa and Latin America should the COVAX global scheme not be supplied with the Indian vaccine.

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