A vial of the Covishield vaccine, developed by Oxford-Astrazeneca Plc. and manufactured by Serum Institute of India Ltd (file photo) | Photo: Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg
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New Delhi: Domestic pressure, coupled with a severe shortage, has brought India’s Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy — Vaccine Maitri — to a screeching halt, but neighbouring countries are now urging New Delhi to at least free up their commercial vaccine shipments in order to prevent the outbreak of second and third waves of Covid-19 there, ThePrint has learnt.

Under the Vaccine Maitri initiative, while India had gifted the Serum Institute of India (SII)-manufactured Covishield vaccines to its friends in the neighbourhood, countries such as  Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also bought millions of doses from the vaccine maker directly.

A large chunk of their orders are pending, official sources told ThePrint. They added that vaccines being produced in India have to be “repurposed” to meet the country’s own demands and that there are no immediate plans to resume the exports. 

India has also suspended its global vaccine sharing COVAX commitment, which has also impacted these countries. 

Earlier this week while addressing an event in London, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, however, said India had to give the vaccines to the neighbourhood as it was about a pandemic breaking out “right across your doorstep.” 

Also read: Even if WTO waives patent rights, no country can start making a Covid vaccine immediately

Nepal seeks vaccines

India has so far handed over 2.4 million (24 lakh) doses to Nepal, which includes gifts, exports as well as those under COVAX, the worldwide equitable vaccine access initiative. 

However, the Himalayan nation is now reeling under rising Covid cases and has put in place a nationwide lockdown that will last until 12 May.

As a result, Kathmandu has urged New Delhi to at least let the commercial shipments go through since it is in “dire need of the vaccines” and is “only dependent” on India to complete its first phase of vaccination programme, sources said. 

According to the sources, Kathmandu has also paid for about 2 million (20 lakh) doses of Covishield, of which it has so far got 1 million (10 lakh). As a result, just as in India, there are also people there who are missing out on their second dose while some have not been able to the first dose yet. 

Nepal has also told India, sources said, to consider treating the South Asian subcontinent as “one consolidated unit” where no country can get rid of the severe impact of the pandemic if the other is suffering since these countries share common borders. 

Nepal is reportedly registering about 20 daily Covid-19 cases per 1,00,000 people, similar to what India was seeing a couple of weeks back. 

Taking advantage of the crisis in India, meanwhile, China has put its foot in New Delhi’s neighbourhood, by offering its homegrown vaccines — Sinopharm and Sinovac. 

However, with a large chunk of the population in the neighbourhood getting vaccinated on Covishield, the countries cannot opt for the Chinese vaccines to complete their ongoing phases of inoculation.

Similar story in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh

It is a similar story in the other neighbouring countries. 

Sri Lanka is waiting for 1.5 million (15 lakh) doses of Covidshield that it has paid for. The country has so far received five lakh doses. 

The Rajapaksa government is now severely concerned that it may take India almost “six months to a year” to resume the exports. 

Apart from China, Sri Lanka has now reached out to Russia for its Sputnik V vaccines in order to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19. Sri Lanka is expecting 75,000 doses of Sputnik to arrive in Colombo soon, sources said.

Meanwhile, three Sri Lankan nationals who were visiting India last month for visa purposes died of Covid-19 and their bodies were set to rest here without being sent back home, in line with Covid protocols. 

Bangladesh had clinched a deal between its drugmaker Beximco Pharma and SII in November 2020 to procure 30 million (3 crore) doses for which it paid $60 million. But so far it has received only 10 million (1 crore) doses. 

According to sources, it has got only 7 million (70 lakh) doses in January and February, after which it stopped. 

The Sheikh Hasina-government is now planning to import vaccines from the US, Russia and China but it is dependent on India for completing the second doses of those who took Covishield as the first dose. 

Bangladesh has also received 3.3 million (33 lakh) doses from India as a grant so far.

ThePrint sent an email to SII for a comment, but did not receive a response till the time of publishing this report.

Experts maintain that India’s moratorium is temporary. “This is just a temporary phase. India will begin exporting the vaccines soon as we get a range of vaccines coming into the market in the next couple of months,” said Ashok Madan, executive director, Indian Drug Manufacturers’ Association. “Right now, we are facing issues concerning bottlenecks and pricing between the Centre, states and the companies making the vaccines. We have done enough; now is the time to meet our own demands. And we will also start exports soon once the process smoothens.”

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: There’s a need to hold up a mirror to Modi govt on Covid management, and this is the picture


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