Amid the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases this month, India has paused vaccine exports. With the government opening up vaccination to adults over 18, the domestic demand has grown exponentially. The shipments have been halted since mid-April, and it is not confirmed when India would begin exporting doses again.
The suspension of vaccine export has led to a shortfall of 90 million doses for the international vaccine distribution effort 'Covax'.
Low-income nations such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan may face a severe brunt if the COVID-19 situation in India doesn't improve and the vaccines are not exported in May as well. Some of the nations have also made bilateral deals with Serum Institute of India, Pune.
The Ministry of External Affairs on Friday said there was "no update" on the resumption of vaccine exports.
According to Andrea Taylor, a researcher at Duke University's Global Health Innovation Center who leads a team tracking vaccine deals and distribution, any further delay in getting vaccine supplies from India would have a "devastating" effect on poorer nations, reported NDTV.
"There is no contingency plan or alternate supplier for the next few months," Taylor said.
While the world is relying on India for COVID-19 vaccines, the Indian government is struggling to justify the export of millions of doses abroad without securing enough jabs for its over 136 crore population. India is now adding nearly a million cases every three days since last week. Despite this, less than 10 per cent of Indians have received vaccines.
Outside India, the profound impact of the export ban has prompted countries to look for other manufacturing options. Gavi, a vaccine alliance that backs Covax, in a statement, said 4.9 crore doses had been distributed through Covax, of which 2.9 crore were from Serum.
According to government data, India exported over 2.8 crore doses in March, up from 1.7 crore in February, with most vaccines coming from Serum. But from April 16, not a single vaccine has been exported, according to the data.
Serum Institute's chief, Adar Poonawalla, has blamed the slow pace of vaccine production in India on the US export controls on raw materials. He had also urged US President Joe Biden to "truly unite in beating this virus" in a tweet last month.
Gavi and other international organisations have called on vaccine manufacturing countries to lift restrictions on exports and release excess doses.
The United States has pledged to share its supplies of AstraZeneca, not yet approved domestically, with foreign nations. India expected to get nearly two crore doses as its share. Indian pharma giant Dr Reddy's Laboratories, which received emergency use approval for Russian vaccine Sputnik V in September last year, received the first batch of 1.5 lakh vaccines on Saturday, May 1.
"There's no way to vaccinate your way out of this surge," said Thomas Bollyky, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. He added that treatment and social distancing policies might be more important in the near future.
With the surge in cases in India's neighbouring nations, such as Nepal, concerns are being raised that other countries may be on the same path as India. Nepal had only received half of its order from Serum before India stopped vaccine export. Bangladesh, which signed a deal with Serum Institute of India to received three crore doses, has received just one crore so far. Sri Lanka has also approached China and Russia for vaccines. It recently received six lakh doses of China's Sinopharm.