India blocks exports of AstraZeneca shot as UK faces five million vaccine shortfall

Temporary measure introduced to tackle steep rise in Covid-19 infections

A woman waits to get a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at a health centre in New Delhi on March 25, 2021, as India recorded more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases for the first time since November while a new wave of infections takes hold a year after one of the world's tightest Covid-19 lockdowns was imposed. / AFP / Sajjad HUSSAIN

India has temporarily blocked exports of the AstraZeneca coronavirus shot made by the Serum Institute of India to tackle a steep rise in infections in the country.

The move is a major setback for the Gavi/World Health Organisation-backed global Covax vaccine-sharing facility, through which 64 lower-income countries are supposed to get doses from the institute.

"We understand that deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines to lower-income economies participating in the Covax facility will likely face delays following a setback in securing export licences for further doses of Covid-19 vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India, expected to be shipped in March and April," the UN children's fund said.

A medical worker prepares to inoculates a man with the Covaxin Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at a health centre in New Delhi on March 25, 2021, as India recorded more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases for the first time since November while a new wave of infections takes hold a year after one of the world's tightest Covid-19 lockdowns was imposed. / AFP / Sajjad HUSSAIN

"Covax is in talks with the government of India with a view to ensuring deliveries as quickly as possible."

The pause is expected to further delay the delivery of five million AstraZeneca doses that were due to arrive in Britain this month. Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week blamed the delays on manufacturing issues, which he said would slow down the UK's inoculation efforts.

AstraZeneca told Covax it would make up for the delayed volumes in April and May, Unicef said.

Covax has so far received 17.7 million AstraZeneca doses from the SII, of the 60.5 million doses India has shipped in total, and many countries are relying on the programme to immunise their citizens.

There have been no vaccine exports from India since Thursday, the foreign ministry's website shows, as the country expands its own immunisation effort.

"Everything else has taken a back seat, for the time being at least," said one of the sources.

"No exports, nothing till the time the India situation stabilises. The government won't take such a big chance at the moment when so many need to be vaccinated in India."

The SII has already delayed shipments of the AstraZeneca drug to Brazil, Britain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. British authorities are in touch with New Delhi to get its second batch of five million doses ordered from SII.

Covax has a deal to buy 1.1 billion doses of the AstraZeneca and Novavax shots that the SII is making in bulk, mainly for low and middle-income countries.

Unicef in Vietnam said on Wednesday that vaccine production issues had led to delays in deliveries to all countries that were scheduled to receive vaccines through Covax.

Unicef said Covax had informed participating countries they would receive lower than expected volumes in March of the AstraZeneca-Oxford shot produced in South Korea.

"In line with the challenges of the current global supply environment, this is due to challenges the company faces in rapidly scaling up supply and optimising production processes for these early deliveries," it said.

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