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India slows vital Covid-19 vaccine exports as cases soar

New Delhi – India, the “pharmacy of the world”, has put the brakes on exporting Covid-19 vaccines as it battles a new wave of infections at home and a faltering inoculation drive.

As a major supplier, the development is a blow to vital vaccination programmes in poorer countries under the Covax global inoculation initiative led by the World Health Organization and the Gavi alliance.

So far, India has sent more than 60 million doses to 76 countries, mostly AstraZeneca shots manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker by volume.

Today, Gavi said vaccine deliveries planned for the rest of March and April “will face delays” because of “increased demand of Covid-19 vaccines in India.”

The Indian government and Serum were not immediately available for further comment. An industry source said it was “not clear how long it will take to resolve the delays.”

“Covax is in talks with the government of India with a view to ensuring deliveries as quickly as possible,” the Gavi spokesperson said.

‘Grotesque’

The WHO had on Monday branded the growing gap in immunisation rates between rich and poor countries in the pandemic “grotesque”.

Worldwide more than 488 million doses have been administered, according to an AFP count, 55 per cent to high-income countries accounting for 16 per cent of the global population.

Just 0.1 per cent have been given in the 29 lowest-income nations, home to nine per cent of the world’s people.

The Covax scheme aims to distribute enough doses to vaccinate up to 27 per cent of their population by the end of the year.

It was supposed to deliver some 238 million doses by the end of May, including 237 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine manufactured in India and South Korea.

So far it has shipped more than 31 million doses.

Unicef said today that it was “expecting an additional 40 million doses to be available in March, and up to 50 million doses in April.”

Some rich countries are also relying on Serum. Last week, the British government blamed delays in its vaccination rollout on a supply shortfall from the firm.

Rising infections

But India, home to 1.3 billion people, is experiencing a new wave of Covid-19 cases after infections slowed sharply after September, dashing hopes that for India the pandemic might be over.

India last shipped out shots on March 18, according to foreign ministry data.

Health ministry data on Thursday showed almost 54,000 new infections over the previous 24 hours, the most since October, taking total cases towards 12 million.

More than 700 infections of the UK variant have been detected but the Indian government believes that this and other mutations are not behind the rise.

India’s strict lockdown imposed last March was steadily eased during 2020, with most activity, including weddings, religious festivals and some cricket matches, back to normal.

Now curbs are returning, particularly in the hard-hit western state of Maharashtra where officials have launched random virus checks in crowded areas in the local capital Mumbai — with those tested having to pay.

“Just to enter a mall, you have to give 250 rupees (RM14.50) over here, (and) that too with a queue of one hour,” said irate Mumbai resident Mohit Jain as he lined up to enter a shopping mall.

“It will cause a lot of inconvenience for the malls as well as for the customers also,” he told AFP.

Meanwhile, India this week decided to allow all over-45s to be inoculated as it attempts to vaccinate 300 million people by August.

So far it had administered 53 million shots — fewer than it has exported. Each person requires two shots.

“(It) would be good if the government decides to stop the export and look after its own Indian citizens first,” Delhi resident Beulah Pillay, 62, said as she received her first dose. — AFP

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