World’s largest vaccine maker optimistic on India easing export restrictions

Covid-19 vaccines updates

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, expects India to ease restrictions on Covid-19 vaccine exports in about two months, its chief executive said while criticising wealthy countries for planning boosters while poorer nations struggle to access vaccines for initial jabs.

Indian vaccine exports were halted in April when the country was hit by a ferocious second coronavirus wave, fuelled by the highly infectious Delta variant. The restrictions were a major blow to developing countries counting on affordable Indian jabs to vaccinate their own populations.

Adar Poonawalla expressed optimism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government would permit a gradual resumption of exports, with India’s own vaccine rollout gaining momentum after a difficult start.

“In the next two months, we expect slow easement of exports,” he said. “But you have to check with the government. It is their decision . . . the Indian government, rightly, is being very cautious and calculated in managing the vaccine stocks.”

“We are coming very close to a point where there is more than enough vaccine stock,” Poonawalla said as he unveiled a strategic alliance with Biocon Biologics, another large Indian pharmaceutical company.

He also criticised the actions of wealthy nations that are planning to roll out booster programmes. The US Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory committee is weighing a proposal for widespread booster shots for recipients of the two-dose BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.

“Rich nations have taken most of the vaccines and are now talking about giving a third dose, which is not right,” Poonawalla told reporters on Friday. “It’s unethical to start giving three doses to everybody when some people in some countries have not gotten even two.”

The World Health Organisation’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has repeatedly said the provision of vaccines to poorer countries should be prioritised.

Earlier this year, Modi declared India was “ready to protect humanity” with its locally made Covid vaccines, including millions of doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Serum Institute at its facility in Pune.

India started the year by exporting about 66m Covid jabs, some as gifts to neighbours, others sold commercially to other developing countries, as well as to the WHO-backed Covax scheme, aimed at ensuring access to vaccines for the developing world.

But New Delhi put a de facto ban on exports in mid-April amid a public outcry over the acute domestic shortage of vaccines as a surge in Covid infections overwhelmed hospitals.

Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute of India
Adar Poonawalla: ‘It’s unethical to start giving three doses to everybody when some people in some countries have not gotten even two’ © Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

India’s own supply has since improved significantly and the vaccine rollout has gained momentum. The Serum Institute was now producing 160m doses a month and expected to ramp up to 200m per month in October, Poonawalla said.

The country has administered more than 788m doses, or about 60 for every 100 residents. More than 44 per cent of the population has received a single dose, while more than 14 per cent are fully vaccinated. India is now rolling out an average of 6.8m vaccines a day.

“We are heading towards vaccine adequacy,” said Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder and chair of Biocon. “We are steadily inching forward in terms of people being vaccinated. By the end of the year, we will be in a very good place. Even if we get another wave, it will be muted.”

In their strategic alliance, the privately held Serum Institute will take a 15 per cent stake in Biocon Biologics in return for committed access to 100m doses of vaccines each year for 15 years. The transaction values Biocon Biologics at $4.9bn, the company said.

The two groups will also work together on the manufacturing and distribution of other vaccines and monoclonal antibodies for a range of diseases.

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