India blocks vaccine exports in blow to dozens of nations

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India, one of the world’s biggest vaccine producers, has imposed a de facto ban on jab exports as it seeks to prioritise local vaccinations amid an accelerating second wave of coronavirus infections.

The Serum Institute of India, the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world and the biggest supplier to the international Covax programme, said its shipments would be affected and that the measures could last as long as “two to three months”.

Gavi, the UN-backed international vaccine alliance, immediately warned that the controls would have a direct impact on the Covax scheme, set up with the World Health Organisation to ensure the equitable global distribution of at least 2bn Covid-19 vaccine doses in 2021.

“Deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines to lower-income economies participating in the Covax facility will face delays following a setback in securing export licences for further doses . . . produced by the Serum Institute of India (SII) expected to be shipped in March and April,” Gavi said in a statement on Thursday.

The Serum Institute is contracted to manufacture 550m Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses and 550m Novavax vaccine doses for Covax in 2021 and 2022, more than 80 per cent of the facility’s current signed contracts, according to data from the start of March.

AstraZeneca, Novavax and the WHO did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

News of the controls came as EU leaders prepared for talks later on Thursday on proposed export curbs in Europe as the bloc attempts to make up for a large shortfall in deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine to member states.

India is experiencing a sharp rise in new coronavirus cases and is preparing to expand its vaccination campaign to people aged 45 and above on April 1.

Experts said officials were waiting to assess demand for vaccinations in the next stage of the rollout before clearing export shipments.

“Everything other than India is on hold for the time being; India is the priority,” said a person briefed on the vaccine export talks.

Bharat Biotech, the only other company whose vaccine has been approved for use in India, declined to comment.

India has exported 60m vaccines to countries around the world — more than it has given to its own people — and some states, including the eastern state of Odisha, have reported that they are running low on vaccine stocks.

The country of 1.4bn people on Thursday reported 53,000 new infections in the past 24 hours, the highest number since October.

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