By Saeed Shah in Islamabad, Pakistan, Gabriele Steinhauser in Johannesburg and Rajesh Roy in New Delhi
Islamabad, March 26 (Wall Street Journal): Developing countries scrambled to keep their Covid-19 vaccinations on track Friday after India—a critical supplier to a United Nations-backed and Western-funded vaccine campaign—temporarily restricted exports.
The new vaccine limits by India, which is dealing with a resurgence of cases at home, intensified an already frenetic global race to secure vaccine doses, and could leave developing countries more dependent on China or Russia for their immunizations.
The Serum Institute of India, a private company, signed up to supply the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford to 64 developing nations through Covax, the initiative created by the World Health Organization and two organizations working on vaccines.
Covax says it has shipped vaccines to more than 60 countries, including 28 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine made in India. The suspension of additional supplies means that a further 90 million doses due to be delivered in March and April will be postponed.
John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the disruption of vaccine flow, which exacerbates existing shortages on the continent, “leaves me personally with a sense of helplessness.” He said: “There is absolutely no need for us as the world…to go to a vaccine war.”
Governments around the globe have imposed export restrictions on the vaccines or the raw materials needed to make them as they struggle to contain the virus within their borders.
So far, more than 60 million doses made in India have been supplied to over 75 countries, including through Covax, more than from any other country, said an Indian official with direct knowledge of vaccine exports.
“We remain committed to help the world with vaccines,” the official said. “Given our current manufacturing capacity and requirements of national vaccination programs, there may be a need to calibrate the supply schedules from time to time.”
Pakistani Health Minister Faisal Sultan said his country had been banking on vaccines from Covax to form the mainstay of its immunization program, with doses due to start arriving in early March. But now that it is unclear when supplies will start the country will look to China instead.
“We’re having to re-engineer and rethink our strategy,” Dr. Sultan said. “This will slow our deployment very significantly.”
In the initial supply from Covax, Pakistan was the country due to receive the most, almost 15 million doses by the end of May. Dr. Sultan said he hoped Covax could still deliver later in the year.
Pakistan is now fighting its third wave of infections, with cases and deaths reaching the highest levels since summer last year. So far, the only vaccine Pakistan has received are 1.5 million doses donated by China, which are being used for health workers and older citizens.
It hopes to purchase several million doses from China now, but it is finding it difficult to secure supplies as it buying at the last minute for use in the next few weeks, officials said.
Sabin Nsanzimana, the director general of the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, said his country had already administered all 342,960 doses it received from Covax and, not knowing when the next shipment would arrive, was holding up its vaccination campaign.
“We are expecting [the] next doses but we don’t know exactly which date and time,” he said. “I just hope it will be very soon.”
Richard Mihigo, who runs the WHO vaccination program in Africa, said the WHO and the other agencies behind Covax were in intense talks with the India government to at least release vaccines planned for March and April.
“This is a very complex situation [that is] putting additional pressure on the constrained supply situation globally,” he said. “We hope that a quick solution would be found for this situation.”
Covax says it wants to provide two billion doses this year to 92 developing countries, and still aims to hit this target, albeit now later in the year. Some three-quarters of those doses could be manufactured in India, depending on final contracts, under license from Novavax Inc. and Johnson & Johnson in addition to AstraZeneca.
The goal for Covax is to enable developing countries to inoculate the most vulnerable 20% of their populations this year. By contrast, richer nations including the U.S. have bought many times more vaccine doses than required to cover their entire populations.
That inequality was described this week as “grotesque” by the WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. On Friday he called for rich countries that have bought more vaccines than needed to urgently donate doses so that all countries can start their vaccination campaigns. He said he hoped that India could balance its domestic needs with supplying others.
Andrea Taylor, of Duke University, which tracks vaccine supply, said that countries had confirmed purchases of more than 688 million doses of Chinese vaccines, but it was unclear if those could be delivered in the next few months.
“India, and the Serum Institute in particular, is the backbone of vaccine supply for the Global South,” Ms. Taylor said by email. “This was a predictable outcome and as cases rise, India is making the same decisions that the U.S. and EU have made, to prioritize domestic supply and limit exports.”