India looks to boost vaccines with Russian jab deal as Covid cases skyrocket

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi touted India as “the pharmacy of the world” not long ago, as it exported more than 60 million locally made doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to the world.

But with patients sick with Covid-19 swamping hospitals in Mumbai, New Delhi and other major cities, the government is scrambling to get more vaccines for home use.

Indian drug regulators on Monday granted emergency clearance to Russian vaccine Sputnik V, a day after confirmed cases of Covid-19 hit a record 170,000. The deal paved the way for both local production and potential imports of the vaccine.

New Delhi also said it would grant emergency clearance to all foreign Covid-19 vaccines approved for use in the US, UK, Europe or Japan, waiving the previous requirement of ” local gateways.

Dr VK Paul, head of the Indian Vaccine Strategy Working Group, said New Delhi hoped that drug makers such as Pfizer and Moderna would bring their vaccines to India “as soon as possible”.

But experts have warned India’s latest moves are unlikely to spur a big increase in domestic vaccine supplies. The availability of jabs will remain tight for months due to the limited production capacity of the Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, capable of producing 2.4 million doses of AstraZeneca per day, and Russia’s intention to export most of its vaccines made in India.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund that manages overseas sales and production of Sputnik V, has made deals with at least five Indian pharmaceutical companies to produce 850 million doses per year.

But RDIF has only announced one deal to deliver 100 million doses to India for home use. The rest is for export to more than 58 countries orders placed for the Russian jab.

“There is unlikely to be immediate relief,” said Reuben Abraham, managing director of the IDFC Institute, a Mumbai-based think tank. “These vaccines will take a long time to get online.”

Growing public anger over domestic vaccine shortages is one of the most serious challenges facing the Modi government amid a severe second wave of Covid-19 cases.

Gajanan Dhuppe, 53, and his diabetic wife, 47, had confirmed vaccination appointments on two different days at Noida’s Jaypee Hospital, near New Delhi.

But the vaccines ran out before their turn each time, and hospital officials were unsure when more supplies would arrive. “The government is lying that there is no shortage,” said Dhuppe, who suffers from high blood pressure. “I wasted two days of my leave trying to get the vaccine.”

Thousands of worshipers attend Kumbh Mela, raising fears that the Hindu religious holiday will become a widespread Covid-19 event © AFP via Getty Images

Many other vaccination centers in major cities across the country have been forced to suspend operations in recent days due to a lack of shots.

India administered around 108 million doses of the vaccine, or less than 8 doses per 100 people since the start of its national vaccination campaign in mid-January, while the number of cases has been steadily declining.

While many senior Indians eligible for the jab for the first time were reluctant to take them, the demand jumped as the number of cases has increased in recent weeks. Authorities also extended eligibility on April 1 to anyone over 45.

“Many people who are currently in intensive care units were eligible for the vaccine and never took it,” Abraham said.

Sputnik V will likely be the first of the new vaccines available in India later this month or early May, albeit in limited quality. But production in India is unlikely to start until July, according to a note released by Emkay Global, a financial services company.

Until then, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, an Indian drug maker, aims to import doses of Sputnik to India once the pricing issues are resolved. The RDIF said it had a fixed price of $ 9.75 per dose for the two-dose vaccine, far more than the $ 2 per dose India pays the Serum Institute for the AstraZeneca vaccine. RDIF did not respond to a request for comment on prices or the proportion of doses that would be exported.

Kirill Dmitriev, director of RDIF, said on Tuesday that the fund would soon announce “a few more” production deals in India, and that production of Sputnik V in the country would reach 50 million doses per month “by the end of this year. ‘summer”.

But RDIF partner companies have limited vaccine experience and will need time to establish production lines to make Sputnik V, analysts say. “There’s a lot of technology transfer, so you have to get a manufacturing license. . . it is not an easy thing, there are many processes involved, ”said an official from one of the companies.

New Delhi’s sudden push to procure vaccines came amid fears that a worsening of the number of cases was imminent following mass political rallies and Religious holidays.

Dr Swarup Sarkar, a member of the Indian Council for Medical Research’s Covid-19 working group, said the country was facing the consequences of not to adopt an aggressive vaccination strategy.

Instead, New Delhi only planned to vaccinate about 300 million people considered to be at higher risk of death, with vaccine supplies being assessed accordingly.

“India made a strategic mistake,” Sarkar said. “It was never part of the government’s plan to get 70% immunity before the mutation happened.”

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