NEW DELHI - India has not imposed a ban on export of vaccines for COVID-19, the federal government said amid a controversy that it had imposed restrictions on an Indian company expected to be on the frontlines in supplying vaccines to developing countries.
India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, is expected to play a pivotal role as low and middle income countries look ahead to launching immunization programs to bring the pandemic under control.
But following the emergency authorization granted by Indian authorities to the British-developed AstraZeneca and another vaccine developed locally on Sunday, media reports said that India will not allow exports for several months.
“The government hasn't banned the export of any one of the COVID vaccines. That is something that should be absolutely clear,” Rajesh Bhushan, the health ministry's top official told reporters cautioning against what he called “misinformation.”
In a joint statement on Tuesday, the two companies manufacturing the vaccines — the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech — also pledged global access for the doses saying that the most important task ahead was to save lives and livelihoods in India and the world.
For the time being, the global focus is mainly on the Serum institute that is manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine — the company is on track to make a billion doses this year as it ramps up its current capacity of 60 to 70 million doses a month to 100 million doses by March, according to a company spokesman.
It has already stockpiled 50 million doses made even before approval came in.
The initial vaccines are expected to be supplied domestically India, which aims to immunize 300 million people by August, will need millions of doses for its own massive population.
However, the rollout in many countries in Asia and Africa will depend on the speed with which they secure vaccines from Indian companies like the Serum Institute. Half the one billion doses it is contracted to make are to be sold to developing countries.
Health experts are also watching the development of two local vaccine candidates by Indian companies.
“India’s leadership on this front may be a game changer for COVID vaccine distribution in the developing world,” according to Andrea D. Taylor, an Assistant Director at the Duke Innovation Global Health Center. “The first is the sheer volume of vaccines that they intend to produce, as well as the considerable number of doses that have already been manufactured and stockpiled and are now ready to ship out.”
While rich countries like the U.S., Britain, and Canada have secured available vaccines for their own populations and launched immunization programs, developing countries have been left behind as they look for affordable vaccine supplies.
For them, the most promising candidate so far is AstraZeneca that can be stored in ordinary refrigerators and is cheaper compared to vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna.
Gavi, a non-profit global vaccine alliance, has entered into an agreement with the Serum Institute for 200 million doses of AstraZeneca billed as the “vaccine for the world.” It is expected to be priced at around $ 3.
However, when these will be available remains unclear. Though Indian companies, which make 60 percent of the world’s vaccines, are ramping up production lines, there is expected to be a huge mismatch between supply and demand amid the worldwide scramble for vaccines.
“Our data on vaccine purchases and manufacturing indicate that there is reason to be concerned that low and middle income countries will not receive enough vaccines in 2021,” according to Taylor. “This is not because of hoarding by the Indian market but because globally we cannot produce enough doses quickly enough or ensure that they reach all high-priority populations first.”