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EXCLUSIVE | ‘Government won’t ban commercial export of Covid-19 vaccine’, sources say

Many have argued for a ban on the commercial export of Covid-19 vaccines from India, as the second wave of the pandemic continues to infect a record number of people every day and vaccine shortages have been reported from multiple States. But the government is not keen on the proposal since both the manufacturers in India are legally obligated to fulfil contracts to supply doses to foreign buyers, and a large chunk of the global poor are dependent on India’s vaccines.

April 12, 2021 / 01:24 PM IST
Representative Image. Work on a vaccine assembly line at the Serum Institute in Pune.

Representative Image. Work on a vaccine assembly line at the Serum Institute in Pune.

The Centre has decided not to ban the commercial export of Covid-19 vaccines by the two manufacturers based in India, for now. The decision was taken on April 12, at a crucial government meeting aimed at taking stock of the ongoing pandemic, sources said. They added the issue may be reconsidered again after two weeks.

The meeting, involving senior officials from across ministries, was held a day after the Department of Pharmaceuticals announced a ban on the export of the Remdesivir drug and its active pharmaceutical ingredients, after demand for both soared in the treatment of Covid-19 positive patients.

States facing acute shortage

With new cases now at almost 1.7 lakh daily, and an acute shortage of vaccine doses in many States, there have been calls to stop the export of the Covishield vaccine manufactured by Pune’s Serum Institute of India and Covaxin, made by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech International.

Last week, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had written to the Prime Minister asking for an immediate freeze on exports.

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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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Officials say the government is well within its power to order restrictions on commercial exports, given that the current Foreign Trade Policy allows India to take unilateral action regarding a traded item to meet its domestic requirements.

“But doing so will affect the global standing of India as a hub for vaccine manufacturing. It will also erode our reputation as an ally of the bloc of smaller, economically less-developed nations, since many of the commercial orders are to entities coordinating vaccine relief efforts on an international scale,” a senior trade department official said.

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

Under the plan, vaccine producers in India have sent out 1.8 crore doses till now. But GAVI, which has support from the European Union and the World Health Organization, recently said it fears the supply pipeline thinning now as manufacturers shift their vaccine supplies towards the domestic arena.

Officials also pointed to the worrisome possibility of both companies potentially drowning in lawsuits and foreign penalties if they fail to honour their contracts and deliver shipments. While the two producers have till now exported 3.57 crore doses on commercial terms to foreign governments and companies, they are yet to complete many pending orders.

Many foreign buyers have keenly watched the unfolding debate over commercial exports, and some have begun to express worry about their scheduled delivery. Last week, an anxious Iranian government clarified that it had ordered 5 lakh doses of Covaxin from Bharat Biotech. But 3.75 lakh doses, which were supposed to be sent by mid-March, are still pending.

 Global vaccine donations on hold

Apart from commercial exports and the COVAX initiative, Made in India vaccines have also been sent to foreign nations as part of the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative, through the government’s global development grants to poorer nations.

Moneycontrol reported on April 9 that India has decided to stop the direct grant of Covid-19 vaccines to other countries. Multiple sources in the Ministry of External Affairs had confirmed that the programme has been put on hold for the next one month or until the supply of vaccines for domestic requirements reaches an “optimal level”.

As a result, no new shipments are expected to go out in the foreseeable future although shipments would continue for cases that have already been approved and the recipient government has been informed.

As of April 12, India has provided direct grants of 1.05 crore doses of vaccines to 45 nations, with the most recent being a shipment of 10,000 doses sent to the small Pacific island nation of Nauru on April 6.
Subhayan Chakraborty

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