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India’s jab shortage has cut its daily vaccination rate in half

May 4, 2021, 10:25 AM UTC

India is vaccinating about half as many people per day as it did a month ago, as India’s vaccine campaign fails to keep pace with the country’s spiraling public health catastrophe.

On May 2, India administered 450,000 COVID-19 vaccine shots, according to the government, its lowest tally in over a month and down from a peak of 4.5 million people on April 5. On Monday, India increased the number of shots delivered to 1.7 million, bringing India’s seven-day average to 1.96 million people vaccinated per day. Still, India’s seven-day average is down nearly half from early April, when it averaged 3.5 million shots per day.

India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, is running out of supplies and confronting new distribution problems.

Last week, India’s vaccine registration portal briefly crashed amid a surge of new sign-ups. The government also abruptly shifted last week to allowing private hospitals and individual states to purchase 50% of available vaccine stocks rather than controlling 100% of the vaccines at the federal level. The decision, experts say, provided local officials and hospitals with only a limited window to negotiate for doses and stockpile vaccines.

On Saturday, India opened its COVID-19 vaccination program up to every eligible adult—an additional 600 million people—but expanding the program only increased demand for a dwindling supply.

On Sunday, Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of India’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute, told the Financial Times from London that India’s vaccine supply shortage may last until July.

At that time, he expects the Serum Institute, which is manufacturing AstraZeneca’s vaccine under the name Covishield, to increase production to 100 million vaccines per month, up from the current 60 million to 70 million doses per month.

“We have [secured a government loan] right now to address the ridiculous shortage that the nation, and obviously now the world even, has,” Poonawalla said to the Financial Times. In the past, Poonawalla has blamed a shortage of raw materials on the U.S.’s vaccine export ban and his own government’s decision to freeze vaccine exports; when the Serum Institute failed to fulfill overseas contracts, funding dried up.

India has delivered 159 million COVID-19 jabs to its citizens, trailing only China and the U.S. in total shots delivered. Still, India’s campaign to inoculate its 1.4 billion people has fallen off pace. India has provided at least one vaccine dose to 9.4% of its population, compared with 24.9% of people given at least one dose in the European Union and 44.4% in the U.S. China, on the other hand, says it has provided vaccines to 9.8% of its population. (The share that’s received at least one dose is likely higher, but China does not report that information.)

To boost its campaign, India has reduced hurdles for foreign vaccine makers to sell COVID-19 vaccines in India. It approved Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine on March 24. Previously, India had only approved vaccines from domestic makers, the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech.  

The first Sputnik V shipment arrived in India on Saturday, carrying 150,000 doses.

The Russian Ambassador Nikolay Kudashev said Saturday that local production is expected to start “soon,” with the goal of ramping up production to 850 million doses per year. But neither Kudashev nor the Indian government provided a specific timeline on when exactly they expect more doses to arrive.

Meanwhile, Dr. Reddy’s, the Indian pharmaceutical firm that is partnering with the Russian Direct Investment Fund to produce the Sputnik doses, said Saturday that the 150,000 doses will be available in “a few weeks” after clearing customs.

The U.S. also pledged last week to send 20 million doses of its own AstraZeneca supply to India, but has not provided a timeline for the shipment.

Albert Bourla, the CEO of U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, said Monday that he is in talks with India’s government to supply the country with vaccines, but India’s approval process continues to remain a roadblock.

“Unfortunately, our vaccine is not registered in India, although our application was submitted months ago,” he said in a video statement.

Pfizer applied for emergency approval of its vaccine in India last December but withdrew its application in February after Indian regulators asked Pfizer to conduct additional safety trials in the country.

In mid-April, India relaxed requirements for foreign vaccine makers and said India will accept vaccines if they had been approved by the World Health Organization or authorities in the U.S., Europe, the U.K, or Japan. Bourla said Monday that Pfizer is in talks with Indian authorities regarding the expedited approval process.

The additional vaccines cannot come fast enough for a country that has become the epicenter of the global pandemic.

India has averaged over 327,000 new cases and over 3,000 deaths each day in the past week, and hospitals remain at capacity with lifesaving supplies like oxygen cylinders and treatment drugs running critically short.

Vaccines may prove India’s only long-term option to getting out of its COVID-19 crisis. But, at least in the short term, there’s little jab relief on the horizon.

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