Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government recently hailed India as ‘the pharmacy of the world’ for exporting more than 60 million locally made doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca coronavirus shot worldwide.
But with sick Covid-19 patients overwhelming hospitals in Mumbai, New Delhi and other major cities, the government is trying to get hold of more domestic vaccines.
Indian drug regulators on Monday issued emergency approval for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine after daily confirmed Covid-19 infections hit a record high of 185,000. The agreement paved the way for both local production and possible import of the vaccine.
New Delhi also said it would grant emergency authorization to any foreign Covid-19 vaccines approved for use in the US, UK, Europe or Japan, waiving the previous requirement for time-consuming local “bridging trials.”
Dr. UK Paul, head of the Indian Vaccine Strategy Task Force, said New Delhi hoped drug manufacturers such as Pfizer and Moderna would bring their vaccines to India “as soon as possible”.
But experts warned that India’s final steps are unlikely to lead to a major increase in domestic vaccine supplies. Availability of jabs will remain tight for months due to the limited production capacity of the Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, capable of producing 2.4 million AstraZeneca doses per day, and Russia’s intention to become the largest part of his -India-produced pricks.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, the state investment fund that manages the overseas sales and production of Sputnik V, has agreements with at least five Indian pharmaceutical companies to jointly produce 850 million doses per year.
But RDIF has only announced one deal to supply 100 million doses to India for household use. The remainder is destined for export to more than 58 countries that have placed orders for the Russian jab.
“Immediate relief is unlikely to come,” said Reuben Abraham, CEO of IDFC Institute, a Mumbai think tank. “It takes a while for these vaccines to come online.”
Growing public anger over domestic vaccine shortages is one of the biggest challenges facing the Modi government amid a serious second wave of Covid-19 cases.
Gajanan Dhuppe, 53, and his 47-year-old wife with diabetes, had confirmed appointments to be vaccinated on two separate days at Jaypee Hospital in Noida near New Delhi.
But the vaccines ran out each time, and hospital officials were unsure when more supplies would arrive. “The government is lying there is no shortage,” said Dhuppe, who has hypertension. “I wasted two days of my leave from work trying to get the vaccine.”
Many other vaccination centers in major cities across the country have been forced to suspend operations in recent days due to lack of injections.
India has administered approximately 108 million doses of vaccine, or less than 8 doses per 100 people, since the national vaccination scheme began in mid-January, when the caseload steadily declined.
While many older Indians who first qualified for the shot were hesitant to take it, demand has skyrocketed as the number of cases has soared in recent weeks. Authorities also extended eligibility to anyone over the age of 45 on April 1.
“Many people who are now in intensive care were eligible for the vaccine and never took it,” said Abraham.
Sputnik V is likely to be the first of the new vaccines to be available in India later this month or early May, albeit in limited qualities. But production in India is unlikely to start until July, according to a note published by Emkay Global, a financial services company.
Until then, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, an Indian drug manufacturer, is committed to importing Sputnik doses into India once the pricing issues are resolved. RDIF said it had a fixed price of $ 9.75 per dose for the two-dose vaccine, far more than the $ 2 per dose that India pays to the Serum Institute for the AstraZeneca shot. RDIF did not respond to a request for comment on the pricing or portion of the doses that would be exported.
Kirill Dmitriev, head of RDIF, said on Tuesday that the fund would soon announce “a few more” production deals in India, and that production of Sputnik V in the country would reach 50 million doses per month “by the end of the summer.”
But the companies that partner with RDIF have limited vaccine experience and will need time to set up production lines to make Sputnik V, analysts say. “There is a lot of technology transfer, then you have to get a manufacturing license. It’s not easy, there are a lot of processes involved,” said an official at one of the companies.
New Delhi’s sudden push to purchase vaccines came as many feared a deteriorating caseload was imminent after massive political rallies and religious festivals. Maharashtra, the Indian state home to the financial capital of Mumbai, has imposed an effective lockdown for the remainder of April as Covid-19 cases increase.
Dr Swarup Sarkar, a member of the Covid-19 task force of the Indian Council of Medical Research, said the country was dealing with the ramifications of not adopting an aggressive vaccination strategy.
Instead, New Delhi alone planned to vaccinate about 300 million people believed to be at higher risk of death, with vaccine stocks assessed accordingly.
“India has made a strategic mistake,” said Sarkar. “It was never part of the government’s plan to achieve 70 percent immunity before mutation occurs.”