Delhi has reportedly put a temporary hold on all major exports of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India (SII) to meet demand at home as infections surge.
The move, first reported by Reuters, will affect supplies to the Gavi/WHO-backed Covax vaccine-sharing facility through which more than 180 countries are expected to get doses, one of the sources said.
The UK has received only half of the 10m doses it ordered from the SII, leading to warnings that its vaccination programme may have to slow. The UK is also facing threats of tighter export controls from the EU on doses produced there.
The reported Indian decision is the latest twist in the increasingly tangled and sometimes murky story of the SII’s involvement in the manufacture of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
There has been a lack of transparency over issues with the institute’s priorities for supply, as well as issues with production, which have emerged in leaks, anonymous briefings and sometimes contradictory statements.
There appear to have been no vaccine exports from India since last Thursday, according to the foreign ministry’s website, as the country expands its own immunisation effort.
“Everything else has taken a backseat, for the time being at least,” one of the sources told Reuters. “No exports, nothing till the time the India situation stabilises. The government won’t take such a big chance at the moment when so many need to be vaccinated in India.”
Both sources had direct knowledge of the matter but declined to be named as the discussions are not public.
India’s foreign ministry and SII, the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, did not immediately reply to requests for comment..
India has detected a “double mutant variant” of the coronavirus in 206 samples in the worst-hit western state of Maharashtra, a senior government official said on Wednesday.
The variant was also detected in nine samples in the capital, Delhi, the director of the National Centre for Disease Control, Sujeet Kumar Singh, told a news conference.
In recent days, India has been moving to step up its so far sluggish coronavirus vaccine programme. This week SII told Brazil, Morocco and Saudi Arabia that further supplies of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine would be delayed, according to the Times of India, citing a letter from the institute’s president.
Adar Poonawalla, the company’s 40-year-old chief executive, is said to have written to Brazil to say that “regrettably” a January fire at one of its manufacturing facilities had “caused obstacles” and the institute would not be able to fulfil its commitments. Similar communications were sent to Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
Last month Poonawalla tweeted that the institute “has been directed to prioritise the huge needs of India and along with that balance the needs of the rest of the world. We are trying our best.”
Initially, Poonawalla had boasted of producing 1.5bn doses by the end of the year, predicting that his company could initially produce between 40-50% of the world’s supply.
The SII has partnerships with AstraZeneca, the Gates Foundation and the Gavi vaccine alliance to make up to 1bn doses for poorer countries.
However, Covax has so far received 17.7m AstraZeneca doses from SII, of the 60.5m doses India has shipped in total.