Mar 25, 2021 - World

India pauses vaccine exports amid surge in cases

Waiting for vaccines in New Delhi. Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty

Exports of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine from the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, have been paused as India grapples with a new spike in cases, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: India hasn't exported any doses at all over the past week, according to foreign ministry data — a worrying sign for the COVAX initiative, which aims to send vaccines all over the world and is relying heavily on Indian-made vaccines.

The big picture: India is one of the world's four primary vaccine producers. Only one of those, China, is not currently restricting exports or discussing doing so.

  • The U.S. isn't exporting any doses and the EU is now debating export curbs.

India had exported 65% of the doses it produced as of last week, according to Airfinity, a science information and analytics company.

  • The Indian government has been engaging in vaccine diplomacy — donating doses to kickstart vaccination campaigns in the Caribbean, for example — while Indian companies have contracts to send doses all over the world, including to developing countries.
  • But Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla said last month that he'd been "directed to prioritize the huge needs of India."

Driving the news: Calls to focus on vaccinating India are growing louder amid a sharp rise in cases this month.

  • The spike is particularly discouraging because an unexpected decline in infections beginning last fall had led to hopes that Indian cities could be approaching herd immunity.
  • Public health authorities say immunity may be less widespread than had been hoped, or the virus could be spreading in communities that were less affected by previous waves.
  • It's not yet clear how big a role new variants are playing.

What to watch: India's government is placing new emphasis on plans to vaccinate 70% of the population of 1.38 billion. That could have major implications for the global vaccine supply.

Go deeper