With nearly 45% vaccinated with one dose, India to finally resume exporting vaccines

India’s decision to resume vaccine exports comes after the Government severely restricted exports in March and stopped them in mid-April. The renewed export drive will prioritise COVAX and neighbouring countries.

In a welcome move to address the huge vaccine inequity globally, India will, from October, resume exporting much needed COVID-19 vaccines.

The decision comes after the Government severely restricted vaccine exports in March and stopped them in mid-April. The renewed export drive, known as Vaccine Maitri, will first prioritise the global vaccine-sharing platform, COVAX, and neighbouring countries.

Just four days after the vaccination programme kicked off in India on January 16, India shipped the first batch of vaccines to Bhutan and the Maldives as a part of its vaccine diplomacy. Till mid-April, India had supplied nearly 20 million doses to COVAX and donated nearly 11 million, while nearly 36 million doses were sold to 26 countries.

But with the daily fresh cases and deaths in the second wave beginning to surge in March and the supply of vaccines from the two manufacturers not meeting domestic demand, the priorities quickly changed and the export of vaccines was put on hold.

It became possible to export vaccines till March mainly due to the slow uptake of vaccines by health-care and frontline workers and Covishield vaccines manufactured late last year nearing the six-month expiry date. The daily uptake of vaccines began climbing steadily with vaccine eligibility too — all above 45 years from April 1 and all adults above 18 years from May 1.

With most developed countries hoarding vaccines and prioritising their vaccination, and India too halting all exports, vaccine supply to COVAX facility has been hit. As a result, about 80% of the nearly six billion doses administered globally have been in high- and upper middle-income countries.

Vaccine inequity is striking in Africa — just 2% of the six billion doses have been administered here and less than 3.5% of its people fully vaccinated. While efforts are being made through COVAX to increase vaccine supply to Africa, the continent will still end up with 25% fewer doses than anticipated by the end of 2021. With only 15% of the over one billion doses pledged by the developed countries have reached Africa, even attempts by Africa to buy vaccines have not been successful.

And now, with the U.S. and other developed countries focusing efforts on approving booster doses for certain categories, the supply of vaccines to Africa and other countries to immunise even health-care workers will continue to be restricted. A vaccination policy that leaves many of the countries in the global South vaccine deprived will be hugely counterproductive.

As long as vaccine inequity prevails globally, the virus will continue to circulate, thereby increasing the possibility of more dangerous variants, far more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than Delta, emerging. India’s decision to resume vaccine exports is, hence, commendable. The need to quickly ramp up vaccine production here to sustain exports even while meeting the ever-rising domestic demand cannot be overemphasised.

Published in The Hindu on September 22, 2021