Exclusive | SII focused on local vaccine demand, may export Covishield towards year end

Company risks facing litigation for delaying delivery of vaccines to COVAX Facility, set up to procure and distribute shots in poor countries.

June 21, 2021 / 04:45 PM IST
Coronavirus

Coronavirus

Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker by volume, is currently focused on catering to domestic demand for COVID-19 vaccines even as government officials hinted at a possible easing of export restrictions.

Serum Institute may start sending vaccines to other countries and COVAX, possibly by the end of the year, depending on the overall domestic supply situation, company executives said on condition of anonymity.

“Until July end, the supply situation is expected to remain tight, but beyond that things would ease,” another person said. Serum Institute is waiting for the green signal from the government, the person added.

The Centre had received flak for exporting vaccines earlier this year and putting its own population at risk. However, with vaccine supplies improving and the second wave receding, top government officials have indicated that restrictions on exports could be relaxed.

Contractual obligations

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Last year, Pune-based Serum Institute pledged to provide 550 million doses of Covishield, the vaccine developed by University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, to the COVAX Facility, a global initiative for the equitable distribution of jabs to people in 92 low- and middle-income countries. However, the prioritisation of domestic demand led to significant delays in delivering the vaccines to COVAX, placing the company at risk of litigation for not adhering to supply contracts.

COVAX, which was set up a year ago, had shipped more than 77 million doses to 127 countries by the end of May. It is led by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Of the total vaccines shipped, 30 million doses were supplied by Serum Institute.

Moneycontrol had reported earlier how India’s ban on vaccine exports would create a shortfall of 190 million doses globally by the end of June.

“We must also understand that this pandemic is not limited by geographic or political boundaries. We will not be safe till everyone globally is able to defeat this virus at a global scale,” Serum Institute had said in an earlier statement. “Further, as part of our global alliances, we also had commitments to COVAX, so that they could distribute the vaccines globally to end the pandemic.”

Relaxing restrictions?

Vikram Doraiswami, India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh, promised the neighbouring country on June 21 that India is keen to resume COVID-19 vaccine exports soon. The High Commissioner didn’t specifically say when but said the problem would be “resolved soon,” according to the Dhaka Tribune newspaper.

Bangladesh was the largest recipient of COVID-19 vaccines from India through both grants and commercial purchases. According to government data, Bangladesh received almost 10 million doses from India, of which 30 percent was as a grant.

Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar and the Maldives, which are also scrambling to get more people inoculated due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases on account of the Delta variant of the virus, are turning to Chinese suppliers to get their vaccines.

Earlier this week, the Maldives and Myanmar confirmed transmission of the Delta variant, which the World Health Organization has classified as a variant of concern because of its high transmissibility and ability to escape the immune system. The presence of the variant has been confirmed in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Timor-Leste.

India Vaccine Shortage

Many people who got the first dose of Covishield in these countries are yet to receive their second dose, which is making them feel vulnerable.

India had shipped 66 million doses of vaccines overseas through donations, bilateral arrangements and sales. The exports were halted in April as the country was hit by a deadly COVID-19 second wave. India’s tally of almost 30 million COVID-19 cases is the second highest globally, and 388,135 deaths, mostly from the second wave, are the third highest.

India has administered over 280 million doses of vaccines since the vaccination drive started on January 16. Apart from Covishield, vaccines approved for use in India are Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Russia’s Sputnik V.
Viswanath Pilla is a business journalist with 14 years of reporting experience. Based in Mumbai, Pilla covers pharma, healthcare and infrastructure sectors for Moneycontrol.
first published: Jun 21, 2021 04:13 pm

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