A vial of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. Photo: Reuters/Yves Herman/File Photo
New Delhi: Amidst growing demand at home, the Serum Institute of India is legally bound to ship doses of the coronavirus vaccine to COVAX, a spokesperson of Gavi, which is co-leading the global vaccine-sharing facility, told Reuters.
This complicates the Pune-based operation’s efforts to divert all production to the Indian market, amidst a significant surge in cases in the country.
India had slowed all major exports last month to sate the home demand. On April 9, the cumulative case load reached 1,30,60,542. Chief ministers of two states have said stored vaccines are likely to run out amidst the demand, while others have requested a lowering of the minimum vaccine age.
SII is the world’s biggest COVID-19 vaccine maker and manufactures the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine, locally marketed as ‘Covishield’.
Between February and May, SII was supposed to have supplied COVAX with more than 100 million doses, excluding supplies for India. However, it has only received about 18.2 million.
COVAX is an initiative that aims to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. It is led by UNICEF, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, or GAVI), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and others organisations.
COVAX has delivered nearly 38.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 102 countries across six continents, six weeks after it began to roll out supplies, Gavi and WHO have said. It aims to deliver more than 2 billion doses this year.
Of the over 100 economies reached, 61 are among the 92 lower-income economies receiving vaccines funded through the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC), PTI has reported.
“The agreement is legally binding and served as a basis for the first-round allocation document, which has been communicated to all participating economies,” a Gavi spokeswoman told Reuters.
The Reuters report notes that this agreement specified that Gavi would receive 1.1 billion doses of either the AstraZeneca vaccine or that of Novavax, with 200 million committed, and the rest on option, from SII.
AstraZeneca has already issued it a legal notice over delays to other shipments. The African Union’s disease control body said on April 7 that it had dropped plans to secure AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines for its members from SII, the world’s biggest vaccine supplier, amid global shortfalls of the shot.
Gavi told Reuters that its pact with SII took effect when the WHO approved the AstraZeneca shot on February 15.
“SII has pledged that, alongside supplying India, it will prioritise the COVAX multilateral solution for equitable distribution,” Gavi told the news agency.
The report mentioned that neither SII nor Gavi gave comments on how this situation will be mitigated.
However, Murali Neelakantan, the principal lawyer at amicus, told The Wire Science that the problem may be simpler. “SII can’t export in violation of a government order,” according to him. “That’s well established principle of law.”
India could resume vaccine exports by June, SII’s chief executive, Adar Poonawalla, had told reporters this week. On April 7, Poonawalla sought Rs 3,000 crore grant from the government to ramp up capacity of the Covishield COVID-19 vaccine beyond 100 million doses a month that it will reach by the end of May, Financial Express reported.
Meanwhile, asserting that India has not imposed any export ban on anti-coronavirus vaccines, the Ministry of External Affairs on April 8 said the supply of made-in-India vaccines abroad would continue while also taking care of the country’s domestic requirements.
Within the country, the topic of vaccine exports and the politics surrounding it amidst a shortage of doses has taken centre stage.
The Aam Aadmi Party on April 9 blamed the Centre for sending vaccines to Pakistan and Afghanistan when, allegedly, “Due to a shortage of the vaccine doses, 109 vaccination centres in Pune, 26 in Mumbai and more than 700 in Odisha have been shut down.”
Note: This article was edited at 5:16 pm on April 12, 2021, to include Murali Neelakantan’s comment.