India block on jab exports ‘to hit Covax deliveries to world’s poorest’

India has put a temporary hold on all exports of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine made there, potentially delaying millions of doses to other badly affected developing countries.

Officials have said there will be a “squeeze” on exports during April so that jabs can be directed into its domestic vaccine campaign as the country faces a new surge in Covid-19 infections.

The move is likely to delay deliveries to some of the world’s poorest countries who are awaiting jabs as part of the Covax vaccine-sharing scheme.

India’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India (SII), has already delayed shipments to several countries this month, including the UK and Brazil, but officials said the block on exports was now complete. There have been no exports for a week.

Covid-19 infections are quickly flaring up again within India after months of declining cases and Narendra Modi’s government is under pressure to speed up its own vaccination drive. “Everything else has taken a backseat, for the time being at least,” one foreign office official 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.”

Covax has a deal to buy 1.1 billion doses of the AstraZeneca and Novavax shots that the SII is making, mainly for low- and middle-income countries.

Unicef, which buys and distributes vaccines for the scheme, said the failure to get export licences for March and April jab consignments meant “deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines to lower-income economies participating in the Covax facility will likely face delays”.

A statement said that under the agreement between SII and the Gavi global vaccine alliance, the manufacturer had been given money to bulk up production lines and agreed to supply vaccine to Covax  “alongside its commitments to the Government of India”.

“Covax is in talks with the Government of India with a view to ensuring deliveries as quickly as possible,” the statement said.

India’s daily caseload topped 53,000 as news of the export block was disclosed, as infections hit a five-month high.

The nation’s top virologist told the Telegraph that the country had already been generous in distributing vaccine and now needed to address its own outbreak. India has already supplied some 17 million Astra Zeneca doses to other countries.

Dr Shahid Jameel, director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, said: “Obviously, the government is under a lot of pressure locally with a surge going on in India. To give vaccines to other countries was a political decision and to stop it is again a political decision. 

“It will have a global impact but is it only India’s responsibility? What about the countries you are sitting in? How many doses they have given to anybody? Why it’s only India’s responsibility?” 

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