Under the watchful eyes of the Union government, the Serum Institute of India (SII) is gearing up to export Covishield after meeting the initial requirements of India’s massive vaccination programme, that is all set to be rolled out within a couple of weeks.
Initially, SII will be allowed to ship Covishield to neighbouring nations like Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh as a goodwill gesture as these countries find it difficult to import expensive vaccines from the US or Europe.
The move marks a significant departure from the initial plan of the government to use the entire Covishield production within the country. The emergency use authorisation provided to Covishield was meant for supply only for the vaccination programme in clinical trial mode. However, the government has now opened the export window after being convinced by SII that the vaccine’s production will far exceed India’s requirements in the initial months itself.
Supply of the vaccine, developed by the Oxford-AstraZeneca alliance and produced by SII in India, to the Covax facility established for vulnerable countries will also be allowed shortly, highly-placed health ministry sources said. The Sri Lankan government has indicated its keenness to obtain Covishield to visiting External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and the Modi government is willing to oblige.
India has been initiating a number of steps to establish close ties with Sri Lanka and has been assisting the island nation in several ways to overcome the coronavirus pandemic. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also spoken to leaders of various SAARC nations over phone and discussed collaboration to contain COVID-19.
Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said there was no bar on the export of Covishield or Covaxin, the vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech, indicating that the manufacturers may not require express permission for shipments to other countries. However, the entire process is being manoeuvered by the Modi government deftly with the clear understanding that India’s requirements will get the first priority.
In fact, Serum Institute cannot supply Covishield to private parties under the clearance provided to it. “As of now there is only one supplier and there is only one buyer,” a top government functionary said, alluding to SII’s supply of Covishield for the government’s vaccination programme.
The government’s invisible hand is also firmly behind the truce that Bharat Biotech and SII expressed in their joint statement, which in turn was also quoted by the health secretary to point out that Indian vaccines will cater to global demand.
Export to Africa, South America next
Apart from Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh, Covishield and Covaxin shipments will also reach Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Myanmar at a later stage, the government functionary said. Since both vaccines can be stored at normal refrigerator temperature rather than requiring deep freezer for storage, like the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, these countries feel it is logistically practical to go for the Indian vaccines. Lower cost as compared to other vaccines is also a major factor in them opting for the purchase.
India’s next in priority will be several African and South American nations, the official said. While the shipments would be private exports, it is likely to be based on government-to-government understanding, similar to the export of hydroxychloroquine seen at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While SII is likely to export a bulk of vaccines in the initial stages, Bharat Biotech is expected to join in once its production is ramped up and, in the meanwhile, further clearances are also obtained. Right now Serum Institute has the benefit of Oxford-AstraZeneca obtaining approval in the UK where the use of the vaccine developed by them has already begun. In fact, the emergency use authorisation in India came just days after the UK drug regulator gave the green signal to Covishield.
Apart from these two, Zydus Cadila has been given approval for a third phase of clinical trials and supply in India will be enhanced further with the third vaccine also getting ready.
Therefore, the central government does not see any shortage of COVID-19 vaccine in the country at this point. Anticipating a big business opportunity, Serum Institute has ramped up its manufacturing facilities and is ready with a huge stockpile. Bharat Biotech is also geared up for rapid production of Covaxin and this is expected to further enhance supply in the country. An added advantage at this point is the gradual decline in new infections over the past weeks and the more significant reduction in the number of hospitalisations and casualties. While the government has done elaborate preparations for rapid vaccination, there may be no panic if the current trends persist.
While it is well known that the first phase of vaccination is for doctors, nurses and other medical sector workers like lab technicians, the government has further fine-tuned this priority group into those dealing with COVID-19 patients. So the first jabs will be given to those working at dedicated coronavirus hospitals and coronavirus wards of other hospitals, along with frontline personnel like police and armed forces. Therefore, the initial requirement may not be 30 crore as estimated earlier, leaving room for supplies to other countries. As of now, medical experts feel the situation is improving and strict implementation of social distancing, mandatory wearing of masks; and hand hygiene will go a long way in keeping the spread of the virus at bay.
Once availability of vaccines in the country improves and results of the trials come in, the government will consider opening the supply of indigenous vaccines through private channels too. This will help those not figuring in the priority lists to go for vaccines at their own cost rather than waiting for their turn in the government vaccination programme. For example, a teenager with no health issues may use this option if it becomes mandatory for studying in another country. A number of options are on the drawing board as India has become the only country where multiple COVID-19 vaccines will be produced and health ministry officials believe India will become the largest exporter of these vaccines.