India resumes vaccine exports after two-thirds of adults receive a first dose

By Joe Wallen
Health officials take part in dry run or a mock drill for Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine delivery at a primary health centre in Chennai on January 2, 2021 - ARUN SANKAR /Getty
Health officials take part in dry run or a mock drill for Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine delivery at a primary health centre in Chennai on January 2, 2021 - ARUN SANKAR /Getty

India, one of the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers, has resumed bilateral exports of jabs after a seven-months hiatus now that two-thirds of its adult population have received their first dose.

Over the past week, Delhi has exported around four million doses of domestically-manufactured jabs to Iran, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar – all developing nations that have struggled with vaccine shortages.

In early 2021, India keenly pursued a soft power policy of vaccine diplomacy to counter neighbouring China’s growing regional influence. 

Until a ban was enforced in March, it had exported around 60 million doses to other South Asian countries and the World Health Organization’s vaccine sharing programme, Covax.

But, India was then devastated by a second wave of Covid-19 in the late spring – driven by the more Delta variant and exacerbated as few of its 1.38 billion citizens had been vaccinated – so doses were held to meet domestic demand.

Public pressure had also risen rapidly on the Indian government to scale-up its stuttering vaccination programme, which was initially beset by production and logistical delays, rather than score political points internationally. A decision to export five million doses to the affluent United Kingdom drew considerable ire.

However, India's vaccination production has accelerated rapidly since the spring. This is largely due to the Serum Institute of India (SII), which manufactures the AstraZeneca/Oxford University ‘Covishield’ vaccine, scaling up to 200 million doses a month. Over two-thirds of Indian adults have now received their first dose.

While exports are only expected to recommence slowly in October they are expected to grow significantly by January. The Indian government estimates its domestic monthly production of doses will rise to 300-320 million in January as other locally developed vaccines clear regulatory approvals.

Currently, India is administering an average of 210 million doses each month and so this expected surplus can be exported.
“As India’s needs are met, going forward there will be a generous stockpile of vaccines,” said VK Paul, who heads the Indian government’s task force on Covid-19.

“A huge, huge availability of vaccines can be visualised for next year, we expect vaccines made in India to play a significant role in dealing with the pandemic across the world.”

Last week, Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of the SII, told The Telegraph that his company remained committed to providing one billion doses of its Covishield vaccine to Covax by the end of 2022.

Mr Poonawalla said the SII would prioritise lower-income countries globally through Covax rather than selling doses to be used as booster shots in developed nations.

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