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India to relax COVID-19 vaccine export bans

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There is rising confidence that India will resume COVID-19 vaccine exports as production ramps up, putting the country on schedule to immunize its adult population in the coming months.

“We had put a target of 1.85 billion doses for ourselves. That has been organized by the end of December and thereafter the government will be able to allow vaccine exports,” N.K. Arora, head of the national technical advisory group on immunization told VOA.

“We will have several billion doses available next year.”

India, a vaccine superpower, was projected to be a significant provider of affordable COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries.

However, after sending 66 million shots to almost 100 nations, New Delhi suspended exports in April in response to a devastating second wave of the pandemic, causing countries ranging from Africa to Indonesia to delay their vaccination operations.

There is no formal schedule for resuming exports, with officials underlining that the focus is currently on India’s domestic rollout.

“First, all of our adults will have to be immunized, we have to take care of our own people,” Arora said.

The problem of vaccination supply is expected to come up during Friday’s Quad nations summit conference in Washington. The Quad nations are the United States, Japan, India, and Australia.

According to public health experts, India would likely delay resuming exports until after the country’s festive season concludes in November to avoid dealing with a third wave. Authorities are currently scrambling to provide at least one dose to each adult.

India has vaccinated around two-thirds of its population with one dose, but only about 20% of its approximately 900 million adults have received the entire dose.

In April, as a severe outbreak of diseases claimed a large number of lives, the government faced criticism for selling vaccines while the majority of its own population remained unvaccinated.

India has been pushed to begin exports as the country’s immunizations campaign gathers traction and vaccine availability grows.

At a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday, the World Health Organization stated that it has been assured that shipments from India would resume this year. According to officials, conversations in New Delhi have underlined the critical nature of India being “a part of the solution for Africa.”

African countries have failed to vaccinate their citizens, with only approximately 3 percent of the continent’s population having received vaccinations.

“Given the successful ramp-up of domestic production and the diminishing intensity of its own outbreak, we hope that India will ease its restrictions,” a spokesman for the Gavi alliance, co-leading the global vaccine sharing platform COVAX, told VOA.

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer of AstraZeneca vaccines, has stated that exports may restart once India reaches a point where sufficient stockpiles are available for its immunization push.

“In the next two months, we do expect slow easement of exports. But you have to also check with the government; ultimately it is their decision,” SII chief executive Adar Poonawalla said on Friday.

The institute was to be a significant provider of inexpensive vaccines to COVAX, but the platform’s capacity to obtain adequate doses for low- and middle-income nations took a hit when India suspended exports.

“Countries with a low level of vaccination can breed variants and if the world does not cover those people there is an opportunity for mutants to rise and creep into other countries, making it harder control the pandemic,” K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, said.

The Quad summit next week will also be watched closely to see how far it advances on the vaccine project unveiled in March, under which the four countries agreed to produce 1 billion doses of vaccine in India by 2022 with financial support from the US and Japan.

“The summit will be a good opportunity to take stock and expedite that initiative. Some conversations have happened, let us see what progress is made,” an official in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, who did not want to be named, said.

Vaccines developed as part of the Quad effort were intended for use in countries around the Indo-Pacific region. These and other developing countries have resorted to China, which has supplied more than a billion doses, while Western countries have fallen behind in their attempts to vaccinate poor countries.

However, as new manufacturing facilities are established and the vaccine portfolio is expanded, hopes are growing that India could emerge as a significant global supplier.

“It may look like a presumptuous statement, but we will immunize many countries next year, and these will be with affordable shots. There is no confusion in that. India is committed to it and I see no difficulty at all,” Arora said.

Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar via getty

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