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India to follow ‘HCQ model’, will send Covid vaccines to neighbours after local demand is met

Officials say India 'will not be in a rush', and Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka will get ‘priority’ after domestic demand for the Covid vaccines is fulfilled.

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New Delhi: India has decided that it will follow the “HCQ model” to distribute its Covid-19 vaccines within the immediate neighbourhood and beyond as it will first focus on meeting the domestic demand, ThePrint has learnt.

Official sources said the government will accord priority to all its neighbours, be it Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka or even Afghanistan, in vaccine distribution. These are countries to whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to give vaccines.

According to sources, while there is “no ban” as such on distribution of vaccines to other countries, there are “restrictions” in place at present, as was in the case of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), since it is the government that will procure the vaccines now and have them administered to the local population first. 

As a result, unless the demand is met domestically, none of the vaccines — Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield, manufactured in India by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin — will be “immediately” given to Bangladesh or any other countries, sources said.

Both Covishield and Covaxin were granted emergency-use authorisation by the Drug Controller General of India Sunday.

“India will not be in a rush. Just as we did in the case of HCQ, we will start distributing it as soon as we are done locally,” said a top official. 

In the early stages of the pandemic, countries like the US and Brazil, among others, had bought HCQ from India in large quantities, but the drug was only supplied to them after the domestic demand was met and production ramped up. The anti-malaria drug was seen as a frontrunner for Covid prevention and treatment at the time.

The official said: “There has been no agreement done per se with any of the countries. First priority will be given to our people who are suffering. It cannot be exported immediately to our neighbours. Besides, clinical trials are also going on. So once domestic demand is met, then neighbourhood comes in, prior to which a lot of detailing will take place.”

He added: “We will soon start distributing the vaccines to Bangladesh as well as other countries in the neighbourhood and beyond as we make progress.” 

Bangladesh Monday said it expects to receive vaccines from India by month-end and that an export ban is not applicable to Dhaka. 

In a late evening press conference Monday, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said, “As the deal was done on the basis of discussion at the highest level — between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian premier Narendra Modi — no ban will be applicable for us.”

Momen’s comment had led to confusion giving rise to questions on whether India is not meeting its commitment to serve the local population first.

In November, Bangladesh’s Beximco pharmaceuticals had signed a memorandum of understanding with the SII to procure 30 million doses of Covishield.

A senior SII official told ThePrint, “The agreement signed with other countries will definitely be honoured. But we have to respect the laws of this country also. We can assure that everyone will get a vaccine in due course.”

Meanwhile, Adar Poonawalla, SII CEO, and Bharat Biotech chairman and managing director Dr Krishna Ella issued a joint statement Tuesday pledging towards a “smooth rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to India and the world”.

Also read: Everything we know about Covishield, one of 2 Covid vaccines likely to get nod for use in India

‘Not a competition’

The official quoted in the beginning, meanwhile, said India is cognisant of the fact that none of the neighbouring countries is depending solely on India for vaccines. They also have the option of going for the Chinese as well as the Russian Covid vaccines, he added.

“This is not a competition with any one country. This is about the lives of people.”

ThePrint had earlier reported that while Beijing is rushing to offer its vaccine to some of India’s immediate neighbours, New Delhi is taking “measured steps” to have a locally-made vaccine distributed to friendly countries.

By March, the official said, India will also have Russian vaccine Sputnik V, which is being produced in the county by Hyderabad-based Dr Reddy’s Laboratories in collaboration with the Russian Direct Investment Fund. 

It’s in the final stages of clinical trials, he said.

Also read: Respect govt decision to bar Covishield export, expect nod in March-April, says Serum CEO

Demand for Indian vaccines beyond neighbourhood 

India is facing massive demand for Covid vaccines not just from the neighbourhood but from other countries as well, the official said, adding that demands of every country will be met on a “case to case” basis.

According to Ella, around 12-14 countries have shown interest in Bharat Biotech’s vaccine, including the US and the UK, and Europe.

“All these countries want safer technology and not very high technology. They want that the vaccine should be safe and doesn’t have long-term side-effects. We are also in advance talks with the Bangladesh government for starting clinical trials there. Also, we are talking to the Indian government on signing purchase agreements…,” Ella said at a virtual press briefing Monday.

India plans vaccine bottling in neighbouring countries  

India is also planning “bottling of Covid vaccine doses” at a later stage in some neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, which have expressed interest in manufacturing the vaccines on their own in collaboration with other nations.

A second official said: “It will not be easy to manufacture vaccines in these countries because of lack of infrastructure requirements there. It is a technology sensitive product.”

The official, however, said vaccine doses can be bottled and then supplied to these countries, but at a much later stage when adequate infrastructure has been created there.

Also read: What next as govt expert panel gives conditional nod for Covid vaccines Covaxin and Covishield


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