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World’s biggest COVID vaccine maker banned to export as Indian variant spreads to 17 countries

By Tanya Lara Published Apr 28, 2021 7:01 pm

When India suffers, so does the rest of the world—especially in this pandemic. Yesterday, April 27, new COVID cases hit 350,000 bringing the total to nearly 18 million, and 201,187 deaths.

Early this month, New Delhi asked Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker, to stop exporting its COVID-19 vaccine as the infections were spiking, reaching heartbreaking levels starting last week with almost one million new cases in just three days.

India rolled out its inoculation program on Jan. 16.

SII manufactures vaccines developed by AstraZeneca (UK) and Novavax (US), and supplies vaccines to poor countries. Apart from the dire situation in India, SII has had two major blows: AstraZeneca has served it legal notice for delays, and the US has banned the export of raw materials for vaccines.

An AFP report quotes SII chief executive Adar Poonawalla telling Indian broadcaster NDTV that since New Delhi pays it less per shot than it earns from exports, it needs $408 million from the government to boost its “very stretched” production capacity.

New Delhi ground staff unloading medical aid from an aircraft sent by the United Kingdom.

“This was never budgeted or planned initially, because we were supposed to export and get the funding from export countries but now that that is not happening, we have to find other innovative ways to build our capacity,” Poonawalla said.

“The globe needs this vaccine and we are prioritizing the needs of India at the moment and we are still short of being able to supply...to every Indian that needs it,” he added.

SII was producing over two million doses of Covishield (local name for the AstraZeneca vaccine) a day. The price set for the Indian market was “profitable” but not enough to “re-invest substantially” to increase capacity, he said.

Poonawalla also likened the US ban on exporting raw materials to “as good as banning vaccines.” Its production of Novavax, he said, would be half because of the shortage of raw materials.

A woman gets inoculated with Covishield, AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Punit Paranjpe/AFP

SII also entered into a deal with COVAX, the World Health Organization-backed procurement effort to distribute vaccines equitably, to supply it with 200 million doses.

WHO said April 28 that the Indian COVID variant— B.1.617 which was first found in India—has now spread to 17 countries. “Most sequences were uploaded from India, the United Kingdom, USA and Singapore,” the WHO said in its weekly update on the pandemic.

People queue up to get vaccinated in Mumbai. Photo by Punit Paranjpe/AFP

The organization emphasized that further studies of B.1.617 ad other variants were urgently needed and that “the spread of the second wave has been much faster than the first.”

Banner photo: People lining outside a vaccination center in Mumbai, by Indranil Mukherjee/AFP