There is growing optimism that India could resume exports of COVID-19 vaccines as production expands at a rapid pace, putting the country on track to immunize its adult population in the coming months
“We had put a target of 1.85 billion doses for ourselves. That has been organized by the end of December and thereafter the government will be able to allow vaccine exports,” N.K. Arora, head of the national technical advisory group on immunization told VOA. “We will have several billion doses available next year.”
India, a vaccine powerhouse, was expected to be a major supplier of affordable COVID- 19 vaccines to developing countries.
However, after supplying 66 million doses to nearly 100 countries, New Delhi halted exports in April following a deadly second wave of the pandemic, slowing inoculation programs of countries from Africa to Indonesia.
There is no official comment on a timeline for resumption of exports, with officials stressing that for the time being, the focus is on India’s domestic rollout.
“First, all of our adults will have to be immunized, we have to take care of our own people,” Arora said.
The issue of vaccine supplies is expected to figure in the summit meeting of the Quad nations — the United States, Japan, India and Australia — Friday in Washington.
Public health experts say India will likely wait to restart exports until the country’s festive season ends in November to ensure it does not have to grapple with a third wave. Currently authorities are racing to administer at least one dose to all adults.
India has given one shot to roughly two thirds of its population but only 20% of its approximately 900 million adults have been fully inoculated.
In April, as a ferocious surge in infections took a heavy toll, the government had faced criticism for exporting vaccines when most of its own population was not inoculated.
India has been urged to resume exports as the country’s vaccination program gains momentum and the supply of vaccines increases.
The World Health Organization told a press briefing in Geneva Tuesday that it has been assured that supplies from India will restart this year. Officials said that discussions in New Delhi have emphasized the importance of ensuring that India is “part of the solution for Africa.”
African countries have struggled to inoculate their populations — only about 3% of the continent’s population is vaccinated.
“Given the successful ramp-up of domestic production and the diminishing intensity of its own outbreak, we hope that India will ease its restrictions,” a spokesman for the Gavi alliance, co-leading the global vaccine sharing platform COVAX, told VOA.
The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest producer of the AstraZeneca vaccines, has said that exports could resume as India nears a level where sufficient stocks are available for its inoculation drive.
“In the next two months, we do expect slow easement of exports. But you have to also check with the government; ultimately it is their decision,” SII chief executive Adar Poonawalla said on Friday.
The institute was to be one of the major suppliers of affordable vaccines to COVAX, but the vaccine-sharing platform’s ability to get sufficient doses for low- and middle-income countries took a hit when India shut down exports.
“Countries with a low level of vaccination can breed variants and if the world does not cover those people there is an opportunity for mutants to rise and creep into other countries, making it harder control the pandemic,” K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, said.
Eyes will also be on the Quad summit next week to see how it makes headway on the vaccine initiative announced in March under which the four countries had decided to produce 1 billion doses in India by 2022 with financial backing from the United States and Japan.
“The summit will be a good opportunity to take stock and expedite that initiative. Some conversations have happened, let us see what progress is made,” an official in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, who did not want to be named, said.
Vaccines produced under the Quad initiative were meant for countries in the Indo-Pacific region. These and other developing countries have turned to China, which has supplied over a billion doses, while Western countries are seen to have lagged in their efforts to vaccinate developing countries.
However, hopes are rising that India will emerge as a major global supplier as new production facilities are set up and the basket of vaccines expands.
The SII for example is set to ramp up production to 200 million doses next month –nearly three times its output in April when India halted exports. Indian companies are also set to make millions of doses of both domestically developed vaccines and those developed overseas, such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and Russia’s Sputnik V.
“It may look like a presumptuous statement, but we will immunize many countries next year, and these will be with affordable shots. There is no confusion in that. India is committed to it and I see no difficulty at all,” Arora said.