The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, plans to extend its halt on Covid-19 vaccine exports until the end of the year in a blow to countries depending on its shipments to start their vaccination campaigns.
“We continue to scale up manufacturing and prioritise India,” Adar Poonawalla, chief executive, said on Tuesday. “We also hope to start delivering to Covax and other countries by the end of this year,” he added, referring to the multilateral global vaccine programme.
Poonawalla said he was making the statement in response to “intense discussion” over a decision to export vaccines at the start of the year, which was followed by a sudden freeze on shipments imposed by prime minister Narendra Modi’s government in March as virus cases surged.
The Serum Institute’s CEO had previously said he hoped to resume exports in June, but only if the number of Covid-19 cases in India began to decline.
The group’s latest announcement is a major blow to Covax, a WHO-backed global vaccine programme that aims to provide 2bn doses to the developing world in 2021. The crisis in India has already derailed vaccination programmes in countries depending on Covax to deliver Serum-made doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
Strive Masiyiwa, African Union special envoy on vaccines, said on Tuesday that he was “beyond anger” with the Indian manufacturer. “We met Serum three, four times. At the end I said: ‘I don’t think we should do business with these guys. They’re not reliable.’ We cut off negotiations after that”.
He said he warned Covax in January “not to put all its eggs in one basket” and that it should spread the risk. “They said no, we know Serum Institute and they’re reliable.”
Poonawalla said on Tuesday: “We would like to reiterate that we have never exported vaccines at the cost of the people in India and remain committed to do everything we can in the support of the vaccination drive in the country.”
India’s vaccine drive has slowed, with clinics reporting vaccine shortages.
The country reported a record 4,329 Covid-19 fatalities and 263,533 new infections on Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to 278,719. However, evidence suggests that the true toll is likely to be significantly higher as the virus rips through rural areas where testing is low.
Despite being home to several pharmaceutical companies that have the expertise to produce vaccines at scale, India has failed to step up manufacturing capacity.
In January, Modi proclaimed that India was ready to “save humanity” with its vaccines after containing its coronavirus pandemic and began exports to burnish its diplomatic credentials.
By the time cases and deaths were soaring in April, only about 2 per cent of India’s population had been fully vaccinated with two shots.
The UK government said the move would have no impact on the country’s vaccine rollout. “We have secured early access to 517m doses and remain on track to hit our target of offering every adult in the UK a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of July”, it said.
The UK was one of the largest donors to Covax, providing £548m to help distribute 1.3bn doses of coronavirus vaccines to 92 developing countries this year, a spokesman added. – Financial Times