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India to Restart COVID-19 Vaccine Exports

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FILE - Employees pack boxes containing vials of Covishield, a version of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the Serum Institute of India in Pune, India, Jan. 21, 2021.

India will resume exports of COVID-19 vaccines starting next month, lifting the curbs it placed in April as it grappled with a deadly second wave of the pandemic.

Indian Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya told reporters Monday the government will prioritize the global vaccine-sharing initiative, COVAX, and its neighboring countries as it begins shipping out vaccines.

“The surplus supply of vaccines will be used to fulfil India’s commitment towards the world for putting up a collective fight against COVID-19,” he said.

India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, had been expected to be a major supplier of affordable COVID-19 vaccines to low- and middle-income countries through the COVAX initiative.

But after supplying 66 million doses to about 100 countries, New Delhi halted exports as an exponential rise in infections in April prompted it to turn the focus on vaccinating its own population.

The curbs had been a massive blow to countries that have been struggling to vaccinate their populations.

The announcement on resumption of exports comes days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a summit meeting of the Quad nations in Washington, where vaccine supplies and combating the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to be discussed.

Mandaviya said the country will produce 300 million doses next month and 1 billion over the next three months. He also said that vaccinating its own citizens will remain a priority.

After a stumbling start, partly due to a shortage of vaccines, India’s inoculation program has picked up momentum, and companies have ramped up production.

A health worker administers the Covishield vaccine for COVID-19 during a special vaccination drive in Hyderabad, India, Sept. 17, 2021.
A health worker administers the Covishield vaccine for COVID-19 during a special vaccination drive in Hyderabad, India, Sept. 17, 2021.

However, India still has a way to go before it inoculates its adult population of 900 million. About two-thirds of the country has received one dose, while about 20% have been fully inoculated. The target is to cover all adults by the end of the year.

But hopes are rising that India will emerge as a major global supplier in the coming months as new production facilities come up, and the basket of vaccines to be made in the country expands.

The world’s largest vaccine producer, the Serum Institute of India, which had committed to make millions of doses of the affordable AstraZeneca vaccine for COVAX, 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 produce millions of doses of both domestically developed vaccines and those developed overseas such as Johnson & Johnson 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,” N.K. Arora, head of the national technical advisory group on immunization, told VOA. “We will have several billion doses available next year.”

Eyes will also be on the Quad summit to see how it makes headway on the vaccine initiative announced in March under which the four countries — the United States, India, Japan and Australia — decided to produce 1 billion doses in India by 2022 with financial backing from the U.S. 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 the Foreign Ministry who did not want to be named, said.

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