India's rising output of COVID-19 vaccines and the inoculation of more than half its adult population with at least one dose are raising hopes the country will return as an exporter within months, ramping up from early next year.
After donating or selling 66 million doses to nearly 100 countries, India barred exports in the middle of April to focus on domestic immunisation as infections exploded, upsetting the inoculation plans of many African and South Asian countries.
India's daily vaccinations surpassed 10 million doses on August 27, with national vaccine production more than doubling since April and set to rise again in the coming weeks. New production lines have been set up, a vaccine developed by Cadila Healthcare (CADI.NS) won recent approval, and commercial production of Russia's Sputnik V is starting in India.
The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's biggest vaccine maker, is now producing about 150 million doses a month of its version of the AstraZeneca (AZN.L) shot, more than twice its April output of about 65 million, a source with knowledge of the matter said.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
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.
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.
"No fixed timeline on exports but the company hopes to restart in a few months," said the source, who declined to be named without approval to talk on the matter.
SII, which has previously indicated exports could resume by year-end, did not respond to a request for comment.
Global vaccine sharing platform COVAX hopes India will restart foreign sales sooner than later.
"With successful national vaccination and the arrival of more products, we are hoping that Indian supply to COVAX will resume as quickly as possible," a spokesperson for the platform's co-lead GAVI told Reuters in an email.
India, a major international producer of many other vaccines, could play a "similarly transformative role in the global response to COVID-19," the spokesperson said.
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India's health ministry and the foreign ministry, which coordinates vaccine exports, did not respond to a request for comment.
Bharat Biotech, the maker of India's first domestically developed COVID-19 shot, inaugurated a new factory with a production capacity of 10 million doses a month on August 29. It said it was "marching towards" a goal of a total annual capacity of about 1 billion doses of the drug, Covaxin. read more
Infections, meanwhile, are again rising in India after an explosive outbreak in April and May. But the country has administered more than 633 million vaccine doses, with at least one dose to 52 percent of its 944 million adults and two doses to more than 15 percent.
A government source told Reuters in June the US experience showed that vaccinations tend to slow down after a big majority of people get their shots. That might give SII a chance to export excess output, said the source.
The chief of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party said this month India could produce as many as 1.1 billion vaccine doses between September and December, enough to fully immunise all adults in the country this year. read moreIndia has so far given emergency authorisation to six COVID-19 shots, four of which are being produced locally. One more domestic vaccine is expected to be approved soon while many more are going through mid-stage trials.