India is facing growing pressure to lift its ban on exporting coronavirus vaccines, months after curbs were imposed to tackle a massive domestic outbreak that has since relented.
The world’s second most populous country — and also one of its biggest vaccine manufacturers — imposed the ban this spring as India raced to raise its immunization rate. Now officials in the United States and with Covax, the United Nations-backed vaccine distribution initiative that had counted on India to supply around a billion shots this year, hope a more stable health situation will persuade the country to resume exports.
The pressure comes as wealthy nations, including the United States, move to offer booster shots to their own vaccinated residents.
But Indian officials have not committed to a firm date. Instead, mixed messaging has clouded production forecasts, even as President Joe Biden plans to call on global leaders to make new commitments to fight the pandemic, including fully vaccinating 70% of the world’s population by next September.
In early April, the chief executive of the Serum Institute of India – the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by doses and a producer of the relatively low-cost AstraZeneca shots seen as a lifeline for developing nations – told the Associated Press that the company could resume vaccine exports in June if the domestic health situation improved.
Infections increased the following month, however, peaking in May with at least 2.7 million cases reported in one week. The institute subsequently said in a statement that it hoped to restart exports by the end of the year, but that it would not do so “at the cost of the people in India.”
In August, the head of a group advising the Indian government on vaccinations told Bloomberg News that the country was likely to allow exports next year.
India’s ban has been particularly devastating for lower-income countries that are bearing the brunt of the latest wave of the pandemic. Covax officials said last week that India’s export curb was one of the reasons the program would only have access to about 1.4 billion doses by the end of 2021, far short of the 2 billion doses it had planned for.
Biden administration officials are also working to incentivize India to resume vaccine exports, according to an Axios report citing unidentified people. But U.S. officials, conscious of America’s booster program and the White House’s decision to restrict exports of key raw materials that go into vaccine production, have been cautious about pushing too hard.
Before the export ban, India had sold or donated about 66 million doses of the virus to almost 100 lower-income countries, government data show. On Sunday, India recorded a seven-day rolling average of 33,793 infections – or about a 10th of what it was reporting in early May. The country has also administered at least one vaccine dose to about 40% of its population of nearly 1.4 billion.