India’s plan to resume vaccine exports could be a shot in the armNepal has yet to receive 1 million doses for which it has already paid the Serum Institute of India.
In what can be a much-needed respite for Nepal, India on Monday announced that it would resume exports of Covid-19 vaccines in October to COVAX, the international vaccine-sharing scheme backed by the United Nations, and to neighbouring countries.
“India will resume exports of Covid-19 vaccines in the October quarter, prioritising the global vaccine-sharing platform COVAX and neighbouring countries first as supplies rise,” Reuters reported quoting the health minister of India
For Nepal, which is struggling to secure enough doses, the announcement comes as good news, as COVAX too has committed vaccine doses enough to inoculate 20 percent of its population. On top of that, the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, has yet to supply 1 million doses of the 2 million doses for which the Nepal government paid in February this year.
Indian Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya made the announcement on Monday as India’s monthly vaccine output has more than doubled since it put a ban on exports.
India, considered the pharmacy of the world for its prowess to produce vaccines, stopped exports of Covid-19 shots in April after the second Covid-19 wave slid into a devastating crisis, putting the Narendra Modi government in a fix.
According to Reuters, India’s monthly vaccine output is set to quadruple to over 300 million doses next month.
“Total production could top 1 billion in the last three months of the year as new vaccines from companies such as Biological E are likely to be approved,” Reuters quoted Mandaviya
"We will help other countries and also fulfil our responsibility towards COVAX," he said. “Only excess supplies would be exported.”
Reuters reported last week that India was considering restarting exports of Covid-19 vaccines soon. It donated or sold 66 million doses to nearly 100 countries before the export halt.
Nepal launched its vaccination drive in January, becoming one of the first countries in the world to inoculate its population against Covid-19, with the 1 million doses of Covishield, the AstraZeneca type vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, which the Indian government had provided in grants.
In February, Nepal government placed an order for 2 million doses and paid in advance, at the rate of $4 per dose. After supplying 1 million doses, Serum expressed its inability to provide the remaining doses, leading to a major setback for Nepal’s vaccination campaign.
Around 1.4 million people aged 65 and above, who had taken their first dose in the second week of March, were left to wait for months because Serum failed to live up to its promise. Those people were given their second doses only from August 9 after AstraZeneca doses arrived from Bhutan and Japan.
The Indian ban on the export of vaccine doses also hit COVAX, on which Nepal was largely relying to vaccinate its 6 million population. COVAX has not been able to provide any additional doses ever since it supplied 348,000 doses of Covishield in March.
Around 78 percent of the 30 million population–or around 25 million people–need to be vaccinated in Nepal, as per the Health Ministry’s new plan. The ministry has decided to vaccinate all people above 12, a revision of an earlier plan when it was to vaccinate only those above 14 years of age.
Since it is estimated that over 4 million people are living abroad, the government needs to inoculate around 20 million people. For that, the country needs over 40 million doses of double-shot vaccine.
Nepal, however, has used single-shot vaccines also after the United States in July supplied over 1.5 million doses of Janssen developed and manufactured by Johson & Johnson.
As of now, 11,048 people have died of the virus. In the last 24 hours, 975 people tested positive in 10,786 polymerase chain reaction tests, and an additional 120 people tested positive in 3,031 antigen tests. Eight people died of the virus on Monday.
The number of active cases stands at 22,323 on Monday.
So far, 6,215,856 people (over 20.7 percent) have taken their first dose and 5,588,517 people (over 18.6 percent) have been fully immunised.
India is aiming to vaccinate all its 944 million adults by December. So far, reports suggest, it has given at least one dose to 64 percent of them and two doses to 22 percent.
India has made big strides in its vaccination drive since last month, especially after the Serum Institute of India more than trebled its output of the AstraZeneca shots to 200 million doses a month compared with April levels.
According to reports, Indian companies have the capacity to produce nearly 3 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses a year.
Reuters reported that the announcement on resumption of exports in the October to December quarter comes ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Washington this week where vaccines are likely to be discussed at a summit of the leaders of the Quad countries–the United States, India, Japan and Australia.
There was no clarity as to which vaccines India would supply, or how many doses, once it resumes exports–to COVAX or neighbouring countries.
Given its vaccine production prowess, India had launched “vaccine friendship”, supplying doses to neighbours, including Nepal, as well to far-away countries, for which the government had received a fair share of flak, with critics charging Modi with failing to pay attention to his own people.
Before India halted exports in April, it had exported 66.4 million doses, including commercial sales, grants and shipments to COVAX.
COVAX initially had heavily relied on India, but its plan faced a setback following the Modi government’s ban on exports, as a result it is running behind on its supply schedule.
Nepali officials, however, said that they are not aware of the Indian announcement to resume supply of vaccine doses. They also said that they have no idea about the 1 million doses of the vaccine that Serum is yet to supply to Nepal despite the payment being made.
“We are not yet informed about vaccine supply either from the Serum Institute or any other channel from India,” Dr Bibek Kumar Lal, director at the Family Welfare Division under the Health Ministry, told the Post. “We too have read the news. If the news is true, it will be extremely helpful in our ongoing vaccination drive.”
Officials, however, said there had been some talks about the Serum Institute supplying doses to COVAX.
“I had heard through some informal sources that COVAX was set to get vaccine doses from India,” Lal told the Post. “Even if we cannot purchase directly, we are expecting vaccine supplies from the COVAX facility.”