India has decided to stop the direct grant of COVID-19 vaccines to other countries as part of its humanitarian initiative, in the face of intense pressure to inoculate more Indian citizens as the second wave of the pandemic continues to infect a record number of people every day.
Multiple sources in the ministry of external affairs (MEA) confirmed that the program 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.
The 'Vaccine Maitri' goodwill program being run by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has faced widespread criticism for denying the jab to the country’s own citizens but officials say India's efforts to provide free jabs to poor nations went ahead only after arrangements for ample domestic supply were made.
The government has so far refused to extend the vaccination programme to all citizens despite the record number of daily cases in the second wave of the pandemic. This has sparked fears of vaccine scarcity.
While Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have had to close down vaccination centres according to media reports, Maharashtra, Punjab and other states have appealed to the centre to increase the supply of vaccines as they are running low on stocks.
As of 8 April, India has provided direct grants of 1.05 crore doses of vaccines to 45 nations, with the latest being a shipment of 10,000 doses sent to the small Pacific island nation of Nauru on 6 April.
Direct grants of vaccines by India to underdeveloped nations, mostly in Africa, is the foremost route by which Indian made vaccines have been sent out. Officials confirmed that India has donated the AstraZeneca vaccine being produced by the Serum Institute of India (Covishield) to Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana, Senegal, Mozambique, , Botswana, Mauritius and Seychelles, among others.
On the other hand, Covaxin, developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech International and the Indian Council of Medical Research has been provided to Paraguay, Zimbabwe and Myanmar, among others.
Apart from the grants, the two producers have exported 1.81 crore doses on commercial terms to foreign governments and companies. This commercial export of Covid-19 vaccines has not been restricted by India.
Vaccine Maitri successful
India’s vaccine shipment programme has been a diplomatic success, officials said.
"India is the largest vaccine producer in the world and it was natural for us to provide vaccines to underserved nations as part of our commitment to fight the pandemic on a global scale. The response has been a global outpouring of gratitude. The impact of this may not tangible right now, but it will go a long way in shoring up our alliances and reaching out to new partners," a senior MEA official said.
Diplomats also backed the move. "India can't provide financial incentives and investments to other nations as China does. So, the Vaccine Maitri was a very good initiative. But the government should have taken into consideration the domestic requirements better than it did," Jayant Dasgupta, Former ambassador of India to WTO, said.
The largest route is eventually expected to be the United Nations-backed COVAX initiative which commercially sources vaccines from major vaccine producers to distribute in underdeveloped nations. Under the plan, vaccine producers in India have sent out 1.81 crore doses till now. However, this outflow has come under threat now that the Serum Institute of India is under pressure to provide an increasing number of vaccines on a priority basis to the government.
Earlier this week, the head of Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), which is running the global initiative, said they had expected about 90 million doses in March and April but fear they will get much less now as cases in India rise quickly.
Overall 6.45 crore doses of made-in-India vaccines have been supplied to 85 nations across the world, as a result of such direct grants, commercial sales by both producers based in India having entered into bilateral contracts or through the Covax initiative, according to the data with the MEA.