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Vaccine programmes across Africa and much of the developing world will suffer big delays after the world’s biggest producer said it would not be exporting the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine until the end of the year.
The decision is likely to leave the Covax global vaccine-sharing facility, which helps poor countries, facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions of doses.
“We continue to scale up manufacturing and prioritise India … We also hope to start delivering to Covax and other countries by the end of this year,” Adar Poonawalla, the chief executive of the Serum Institute of India (SII), said in a statement on Tuesday.
SII paused deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine in March, diverting for domestic use doses that were to be distributed across the developing world. It had been widely hoped that supplies of the AstraZeneca shot, which is suitable for use in countries with weak infrastructure and many poorer countries, would begin again in June or October.
However, India is battling a wave of infections that has killed more than 283,000 people, according to official figures that many experts believe are substantial underestimates.
“The Covid-19 crisis has been difficult on people across the globe, including India. In the past few days there has been intense discussion on the decision of our government and Indian vaccine manufacturers, including SII, to export vaccines,” Poonawalla said.
The World Health Organization (WHO), a co-leader of Covax, has called on vaccine makers outside India to advance supplies to the programme to make up the shortfall. Covax aims to provide 2bn vaccines to the developing world in 2021, a target that was always optimistic and now looks impossible to achieve.
The delays will hit India’s neighbours hard. Nepal and Bangladesh are making frantic diplomatic efforts to secure vaccines to prop up their faltering inoculation drives as their stocks run out.
Bangladesh said it urgently needed 1.6m shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine to provide second doses.
Nepal, which started its vaccination drive in January with 2.35m AstraZeneca doses provided by India and Covax, also said it had no stocks and more than 1.55m people were awaiting second doses.
“People above 65 and others in risk groups who received their first shots of the Indian vaccine are waiting for their second,” said Dr Jhalak Gautam, the head of the vaccine section of the ministry of health and population.
“It’s already overdue,” he said, adding the SII had yet to deliver 1m shots that Nepal bought.
Gavi, a public-private global health partnership that aims to increase access to immunisation in poor countries and co-leads Covax, has said at least 140m doses it had expected from SII by the end of May will now remain in India.
“As India confronts a truly dreadful wave of the pandemic, Indian vaccine production, including the 140m vaccine doses initially destined for Covax, have been committed to protecting its own citizens,” a Gavi spokesperson told Reuters.
Covax has a deal with SII to deliver 1.1bn doses of either the AstraZeneca vaccine or the newer Novavax shot, which has still to obtain regulatory approval.
The delays raise the prospect of billions of people around the world waiting until 2022 or even 2023 for vaccination, which may allow new and potentially more harmful variants of the virus to emerge.
As host of next month’s G7 meeting, Boris Johnson is now under intense pressure to ensure rescue packages, vaccines and drugs are dispatched from rich nations to halt the spiralling rates of Covid deaths in developing countries and stem mutation of the virus.
Nearly one in three (30.7%) recorded deaths from Covid-19 worldwide are occurring in poor and lower-middle income countries, statistics from earlier this month revealed, up from 9.3% of global deaths earlier this year.
Joe Biden said on Monday the US would export at least 20m doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots, on top of 60m AstraZeneca doses he had already planned to give to other countries.
The US president’s announcement came as the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned the world had reached a situation of “vaccine apartheid”.
The WHO said last month that Africa had given fewer than 2% of vaccinations administered globally and was being left behind.
There have been 4.7m infections and 126,000 deaths from Covid in Africa, according to official figures, though experts believe these do not reflect the true total.
South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa’s most developed and wealthy country, has only managed to vaccinate 500,000 of its 60m population. A new drive to reach 5 million people got off to a slow start this week amid a sharp rise in cases signalling a third wave of infections. Excess mortality figures suggest the death toll from the pandemic in South Africa is at least twice the official figure of 56,000.
The head of Unicef on Monday asked G7 countries to donate supplies to Covax as an emergency measure to address a severe shortfall caused by disruptions to Indian vaccine exports.
Unicef, which is helping supply vaccines through Covax, estimated the supply shortfall at about 190m by the end of June.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Poorer countries face long delays in receiving Covid vaccines | Coronavirus