The World Health Organisation (WHO) is urgently seeking to fill the gap left in the COVAX dose-sharing programme by India suspending exports of AstraZeneca doses and is in talks with donors, including the United States, senior WHO officials said on Monday. COVAX, the global alliance to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, urgently needs 20 million doses to cover the interruptions in supply, WHO said.
“COVAX urgently needs 20 million doses during the second quarter of 2021 to cover interruptions in supply triggered by increased demands for vaccines in India where COVAX’s main supplier of the AstraZeneca product is based,” according to a WHO press release.
“In the next few months we do not expect Serum (Institute of India) to be able to supply the kind of (doses) originally predicted,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told a news conference.
Bruce Aylward, a WHO senior adviser, said there was no firm date for resumption of Indian vaccine exports amid its COVID-19 crisis.
India is struggling with a second wave of the pandemic with more than 3,00,000 daily new coronavirus cases being reported in the past few days. According to Indian health ministry data, single day rise of 3,68,147 COVID-19 infections and 3,417 fatalities pushed the country’s tally of cases to 1,99,25,604 and death toll to 2,18,959 on Monday.
The global health body in a statement last month had said that as per the agreement between Gavi and the Serum Institute, the Indian vaccine giant will provide Covishield vaccine to COVAX to be distributed to 64 lower-income economies participating in the Gavi COVAX AMC (advance market commitment), alongside its commitments to the Indian government. The agreement also included funding to support an increase in manufacturing capacity.
India is also a participant in the Gavi COVAX AMC initiative. SII CEO Adar Poonawalla said his firm has orders from the India government to supply 11 crore more doses over the next few months on top of 15 crore already supplied.
With states scrambling to secure vaccines, Poonawalla said his firm cannot ramp up production overnight as vaccine making is a specialised process. Serum is licensed to manufacture COVID shots from AstraZeneca Plc and Novavax Inc. SII can produce 6-7 crore doses a month and is reportedly planning to ramp up production to 10 crore by July. Meanwhile, Sweden on Monday announced to share one million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine with the COVAX facility, a move welcomed by WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Sweden’s announcement that it will share 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines with COVAX is a superb gesture that must be replicated urgently, and repeatedly, by governments around the world to accelerate the equitable rollout of vaccines globally, said Ghebreyesus, who met with Swedish Minister for Development Cooperation Per Olsson Fridh during his visit to WHO headquarters in Geneva. Ghebreyesus said, “Such support will ensure that people in vulnerable countries, especially, in Africa, will be able to receive their second doses through the COVAX initiative. Sweden’s generous support is very timely as it comes at a time when the world needs it most.
WHO and its partners are advocating for countries to make contributions, like Sweden’s, to donate doses from their stocks to boost vaccine supplies to COVAX to deepen vaccination coverage in low income countries and to ensure populations in such places receive needed second doses. Several other countries have made similar commitments recently, including New Zealand and France.