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Has India's coronavirus vaccine diplomacy hit a hurdle?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
March 22, 2021

India's vaccine diplomacy is being called into question following a growing number of concerns the country is sending more COVID-19 inoculations abroad than what is being administered at home.

A health worker engages in a COVID-19 vaccine delivery system trial in New Delhi
A health worker engages in a COVID-19 vaccine delivery system trial in New DelhiImage: Altaf Qadri/AP/picture alliance

India had administered nearly 45 million COVID-19 vaccine shots to people across the country as of Sunday. At the same time, it had shipped over 60 million doses to 76 nations, delivered either under the World Health Organization-backed COVAX mechanism or as part of commercial deals.   

It shows India's strong vaccine manufacturing capacity and ability to leverage it to boost the country's global image.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the "vaccine maitri," or vaccine friendship, initiative days after India began its nationwide vaccination campaign on January 16.

The initiative involves India supplying vaccines not just to its South Asian neighbors, but also to nations of the global south, such as Argentina, Brazil and South Africa.

Of the countries that received India-made vaccines, at least 37 have got them for free, 17 through COVAX, under the aegis of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).

And an estimated 34 million doses have so far been sent as part of commercial deals, according to government data.

But with manufacturers struggling to fulfil commitments and commercial obligations, questions are now being raised over the rationale behind shipping out doses and the relatively slow pace of vaccinations at home.

Countries eagerly waiting for COVID vaccine shots

India has approved two vaccines: one developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and made by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), and another developed by the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech.

The Serum Institute, which is the world's largest vaccine maker by volume, had agreed to produce 1.1 billion doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine — known in India as Covishied — for delivery.

Recently, Brazil, Morocco and Saudi Arabia wrote to SII saying they were awaiting more supplies after receiving the first tranche a while back.

Brazil said it had received just 4 million vaccines of the 20 million ordered, while Saudi Arabia received 3 million of its requested 20 million doses. And Morocco received just 7 million of its 20 million shots.

In its replies to authorities of the three countries, SII reportedly said supplies could not be "guaranteed in foreseeable months," citing afire at a company manufacturing unit earlier this year as the reason for the delay.

Nevertheless, speaking to DW in January, SII's CEO Adar Poonawalla stressed that the fire would "not affect production of the coronavirus vaccines."

"It will, however, affect some other vaccines that we were planning to expand on. It will not affect existing supplies and commitments as they will be produced from the existing plants," Poonawalla said.

Vaccinating India

'Delivering vaccines is a tightrope walk'

A senior executive of SII told DW, "we will not be able to talk about this [delay] as these are commercial agreements and it will not be appropriate."

Some analysts say most developing countries wouldn't have received vaccine shots if India hadn't supplied them.

"I would not read too much into this problem. Yes, delivering vaccines is a tightrope walk and this is also because vaccines have a shelf life," Veena Sikri, a former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, told DW.

India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar informed parliament last week that the domestic requirement of the vaccines is being monitored continuously even as India sends vaccines to friendly nations across the globe.

"The House should be aware that the supply of vaccines abroad is based on the assessment of adequate availability at home," said Jaishankar.

Nevertheless, others point out that authorities shouldn't ignore the need at home.

"While India's vaccine diplomacy should be appreciated from a humanitarian point of view, there is no point in getting into a race with China given that less than 50 million Indians have been vaccinated so far," Happymon Jacob, an international relations expert, told DW.

China announced in February that it would offer 10 million doses to COVAX and was preparing to supply additional doses to other countries. By early March, it said it had sent vaccines to 28 countries, mainly in Asia and Africa.

Coronavirus infections surge in India

India's current pace of inoculation is far from what's needed to meet the government's goal of vaccinating 300 million Indians, a quarter of the nation's population, by August.

"There is a serious supply issue with vaccines. So far, 92% of vaccines administered in India have been Covishield and the supply is restricted. Bharat Biotech-developed Covaxin is also not coming through sufficiently," virologist Shahid Jameel told DW.

The country recorded 46,951 new coronavirus infections on Sunday, of which 30,535 cases were reported in the western state of Maharashtra alone.

The number of deaths reported nationwide crossed 200 for the first time since January 12, the Health Ministry said. 

Infections fell to below 9,000 new cases in early February, but have steadily increased since then.

"We definitely will need a bigger stock of vaccines before we expand coverage to other sections of society," a member of the National Expert Group on COVID-19 vaccine administration, told DW.

Last week, as part of the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders' meeting, which involved the leaders of the US, India, Japan and Australia, it was decided that these four nations would jointly supply at least 1 billion vaccine doses to countries in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

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