Halt in exports by SII leaves global vaccination drive stumbling

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The Serum Institute of India, and with it India, has snagged the title of the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world. But as the second wave hit the country and left people scrambling for the jab, the biopharmaceutical company has been unable to meet the demands.

Serum produced the double doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, named Covishield in India, for exports. India donated or sold over 66 million shots before pausing the shipments. Several factors like a fire at one of Serum’s production plants, shortage of storage facilities and raw materials, and changing regulations came together to form the current scenario.

Many developing countries like Africa, Nepal, Sri Lanka etc., have a severe vaccine shortage on their hands. John Hopkins University, which keeps a worldwide tracker, revealed that just about 0.8 per cent of the population in South Africa have been vaccinated. The number is far behind anything remotely reassuring. 

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42 African countries have joined the COVAX facility led by CEPI, Gavi, and WHO. The COVAX scheme aims to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries. Ninety-two mid-to-low income countries are currently eligible to access their vaccines.

But since COVAX largely sourced its doses from the Serum Institute of India, the latter’s inability to deliver on its promises has thrown a wrench in the works.

As India grappled with a shortage of vaccines, people turned accusing eyes at Serum, prompting its CEO Adar Poonawalla to give a statement saying, “We have never exported vaccines at the cost of the people in India and remain committed to do everything we can in the support of the vaccination drive in the country.”

After the ban on the export of vaccines blocked its tapering flow out of the country, COVAX and other countries dependent on India for the doses were left floundering, looking for other sources to make up the deficit. Due to domestic demands, the 140 million doses promised to COVAX by the end of May did not reach the organisation, while the 50 million doses destined for COVAX in June do not look to be forthcoming either.

“Covax has pledged to send shots to some 92 countries, but has so far received only 30 million of the minimum 200 million doses it ordered from Serum, which was to provide the bulk of its early supply,” Bloomberg reported.

As India remains unlikely to resume the export of doses till the end of the year, the delay could further affect the shortages faced by nations.

This predicament does not spell good things for people, whether or not they have been vaccinated.

“There will be no broad-based recovery without an end to the health crisis. Access to vaccination is key to both,” WHO warned on May 31. 

“Inequitable vaccine distribution is not only leaving untold millions of people vulnerable to the virus. It is also allowing deadly variants to emerge and ricochet back across the world,” it said.