The Indian factory churning out AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine has reportedly asked the country’s government for permission to ‘immediately’ ship millions of doses to the UK.
Indian media reports that the Serum Institute has written to ministers for consent to export a batch of 5million jabs. New Delhi has temporarily blocked all major exports of vaccines.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week confirmed delays to a ‘scheduled’ delivery from the Institute would slow Britain’s roll-out in April, meaning millions of over-40s may have to wait until May to get vaccinated.
The Serum Institute initially denied that a timescale for the delivery had been set, but one of its top executives has now written to India’s government to push forward with the plans or risk stalling the UK’s roll-out, the New Indian Express reported.
Director of regulatory affairs at the company, Prakash Kumar Singh, reportedly said its agreement with AstraZeneca gave the British company priority access to anything it makes – and it had recently ‘reminded’ the Institute of this obligation.
He said representatives from both No10 and the drug giant warned that the UK may have to ‘halt’ its vaccination drive unless the doses were supplied immediately.
Boris Johnson this week sent two officials on a mission to India to smooth tensions over the supply chain. Lord Lister and international trade adviser David Quarrey were asked to visit to the Serum Institute to negotiate letting the shipment through.
Indian Government insiders today claimed that Narendra Modi’s administration had blocked exports to meet domestic demand, in the face of rising infections.
AstraZeneca and the UK Department of Health have refused to reveal details about the vaccine supply chain. But the NHS and Mr Hancock have warned of a ‘significant reduction’ in vaccination capacity next month with international supply problems partly to blame.
The missing 5million doses being blocked by India comes amid Britain’s vaccine war with the EU.
Bloc chiefs today revealed they would block exports to nations with high inoculation rates, such as the UK. Tory MPs branded the move ‘mind-blowingly stupid vaccine nationalism’.
The Serum Institute initially denied that a timescale for the delivery had been set, but one of its top executives has now written to India’s government to push forward with the plans or risk stalling the UK’s rollout
AstraZeneca makes its entire base supply in British factories and almost all the Oxford vaccine used so far has been made in the UK. The orders for a batch from a company in the Netherlands and 10million doses from India were intended as additions to try and speed up the programme
EU CONFIRMS IT WILL THROTTLE JAB SHIPMENTS
The EU put Britain in the crosshairs today as it unveiled plans to block vaccine exports to countries with high jab rates that don’t ‘reciprocate’ by sharing supplies.
At a press conference in Brussels, vice-president Valdis Dombrovkis complained that the EU had exported 43million doses to 33 countries since January.
He said exports could be restricted to destination countries that limit their own exports of jabs or raw materials – whether by law or other means.
Mr Dombrovkis said the other principle would be whether a state’s vaccination rate and infection levels were ‘better or worse than the EU’s’.
The move came amid extraordinary reports that 29million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine are being held at a plant in Italy.
According to Italian paper La Stampa the huge stocks were earmarked for the UK, but discovered by the authorities after a tip-off from Brussels.
However, UK government sources insisted the claims are ‘not true’ and the supply figures being cited are ‘insane’. Briefing in Brussels also played down the idea there is a link to Britain, with the plant instead described as a bottling site for stocks heading to countries including Canada and Mexico.
Boris Johnson risked fuelling the row last night by suggesting to Tory MPs that ‘greed’ was responsible for the UK being so far ahead – although he quickly tried to retract the comment, realising it might cause anger.
The exports plan, backed by France and Germany, comes despite diplomatic efforts by Mr Johnson to head off a destructive vaccine war with the EU. It also comes in the face of opposition from some EU countries.
In the letter to the Indian prime minister’s office, Mr Singh said: ‘We have to supply at least 50 lakh doses to AstraZeneca immediately for use in the UK.’
One lakh is equal to 100,000 so 50 lakh is five million – the number of doses Mr Hancock said Britain had been expecting from the Serum Institute.
The Institute is making the AstraZeneca vaccine, which it calls Covishield, as part of an agreement to get the blueprint from the British firm and make the jab at low cost for India and poor countries around the world that can’t mass-produce their own.
The letter to the Indian PM explained: ‘Under this agreement, it was agreed that Serum Institute of India will supply any AstraZeneca country where AstraZeneca has commitments anywhere in the world.
‘It was further agreed that, in return for getting access to the AZ technology AZD1222, Serum Institute Of India will treat AstraZeneca as a priority customer, whether it is for drug substance or finished product.’
Mr Singh said the shipment was of ‘utmost priority’ and that the UK ‘might have to halt the vaccination programme’ if it couldn’t be released.
This is understood to refer only to the roll-out of first doses in Britain because AstraZeneca is understood to be capable of making enough second doses in factories in England and Wales.
The company makes its entire base supply in British factories and most of the Oxford vaccine used so far has been made in the UK.
The orders for a batch from a company in the Netherlands and 10million doses from India – of which half have been delivered and half held up – were intended as additions to try and speed up the programme using spare manufacturing capacity in other countries.
But the deal came under the spotlight last week when the Indian government reportedly blocked the shipment so it could use the doses for its own citizens.
The move will also affect supplies to the GAVI/WHO-backed COVAX vaccine-sharing facility through which more than 180 countries are expected to get doses, sources said today.
COVAX has so far received 17.7million AstraZeneca doses from the SII, of the 60.5million doses India has shipped in total, and many countries are relying on the programme for their roll-outs.
There have been no vaccine exports from India in a week as the country expands its own immunisation effort.
‘Everything else has taken a backseat, for the time being at least,’ said one source who reportedly had direct knowledge of the matter.
‘No exports, nothing till the time the India situation stabilises. The government won’t take such a big chance at the moment when so many need to be vaccinated in India.’
India’s foreign ministry and the SII did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
India is in the midst of a third wave which has seen daily cases per million almost treble since last month
The claims from insiders echo comments made by Serum Institute’s CEO Adar Poonawalla last week.
Mr Poonawalla said the company has committed only to helping the UK ‘as and when it can’ but couldn’t send any more without ministers’ green light.
Last month Mr Poonawalla asked other countries to ‘be patient’ and said it had been asked to ‘prioritise the huge needs of India’ and poorer nations.
Coronavirus cases in India are currently at about a third of their peak 2020 levels and the foreign minister reportedly said in parliament that ‘adequate availability at home’ was its top priority.
Both the NHS and Matt Hancock (pictured) have warned of a ‘significant reduction’ in vaccination capacity next month with international supply problems partly to blame
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Poonawalla hit back against attempts to shift the blame for a hiccup in Britain’s rollout onto the Institute.
He said: ‘There is no stipulated contract period and time in which I am supposed to deliver these doses. I am helping as I can and when I can AstraZeneca and UK to supply these doses.’
Mr Poonawalla denied that there was a shortage of the vaccine or that there was ever a commitment to supply the UK on a deadline, and said the firm had already sent five million doses to Britain.
He added: ‘The balance doses will be decided to be given to the UK at an appropriate time by the Indian Government. While balancing India and all its needs at the same time…
‘And of course, don’t forget we are primarily supplying the CoVax to poorer nations as they are the ones who have not got the doses.’