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Exclusive| Existing commitments may be addressed first once vaccine exports resume

As the government prepares to allow the shipment of Covid-19 vaccines overseas, intense negotiations are underway on which countries will get them first. India has already promised its partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or QUAD, which also comprises the US, Australia and Japan, that it will export eight million doses by October-end. But the global COVAX initiative is yet to receive the vast majority of the 90 million vaccines it has ordered from Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII).

September 27, 2021 / 04:10 PM IST
Representational Image.

Representational Image.

Countries like Iran, which directly ordered Covid-19 vaccines from Indian manufacturers, and poor nations that had been promised assistance under the global COVAX initiative aimed at  fair and equitable distribution,  may receive priority when India resumes exports of the vaccines, people with knowledge of the matter said.

These nations stopped receiving the doses when India banned exports to focus on domestic needs, and completing delivery of the shipments would be a priority, the multiple people said on condition of anonymity. The government also plans to allow vaccine manufacturers to resume the commercial sales of the doses, the people said.

The government said last week that vaccine exports will resume in October. With India promising the QUAD that it will export 8 million vaccines by October-end, the government is now working out how the doses should be distributed, the people said.

A major headache is the pending commitment for the COVAX initiative. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), which runs COVAX, ordered about 90 million doses in March and April. Aimed at more equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, the program commercially sources vaccines from major vaccine producers to distribute in underdeveloped nations.

But a majority of this order remains pending; India has until now been able to ship about 20 million doses under the initiative.  India has shipped, as direct grants and commercial sales by the manufacturers, more than 66 million doses to 95 countries until April 16, when the second wave of the pandemic gained pace.

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QUAD concerns

QUAD wants a majority of the vaccines from India to go to the Asia-Pacific region, where it is sparring with China, sources said.

"In its battle for influence across a host of nations in the critical region, QUAD has counted on India's location, low production cost and connections in the pharma trade to send out vaccine doses," an official said.

To this end, the joint statement released after the first ever in-person QUAD summit on September 25, lauded India's decision to resume vaccine exports. While the exact number of vaccines to be exported and donated by India is still being worked out, officials say domestic requirements will remain a priority.

The QUAD Vaccine Partnership’s financing of increased manufacturing capacity at Hyderabad-based Biological E Limited is set to add to production of the vaccine in India later this year.

Biological E’s production, including through QUAD investments, is set to reach one billion doses by the end of 2022, according to the statement.

Vaccine Maitri 

Earlier this year, the government began the Vaccine Maitri goodwill program run by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to provide free jabs to poor nations. But it faced criticism for ignoring the needs of the country’s own citizens.

Moneycontrol had been the first to report on April 8 that India had decided to stop the program. Multiple people in the ministry confirmed that the program had been put on hold for the next one month or until the supply of vaccines for domestic requirement reaches an “optimal level.”

As of April 16, India had provided direct grants of more than 10 million doses of vaccines to 47 nations, with the last shipment of 50,000 doses sent to Albania.

Moneycontrol also reported that the government would not officially ban the commercial export of vaccines by manufacturers. Till date, this has been the case.

"However, once the second wave hit, both the manufacturers were told to prioritize  domestic requirements. This communication has now been nullified," a senior official said, hinting that companies will soon begin exporting doses.

Serum Institute of India and Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech International Limited, which manufacture vaccines against the coronavirus disease under the Covishield and Covaxin brand names respectively, had commercially exported 35.7 million doses on commercial terms to governments and companies until April 16.
Subhayan Chakraborty has been regularly reporting on international trade, diplomacy and foreign policy, for the past 6 years. He has also extensively covered evolving industry and government issues. He was earlier with Business Standard newspaper.

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