Asian nations seek other vaccine supplies after India export curbs hit Covax

Seoul

SEVERAL Asian countries sought alternative sources for Covid-19 inoculations on Tuesday, after export restrictions by manufacturer India left a World Health Organization (WHO)-backed global vaccine sharing programme short of supplies.

The export curb deepens the problems facing the Covax scheme, relied on by 64 poorer countries, and adds to previous setbacks that include production glitches and a lack of funding contribution from wealthy nations.

The shortage could leave poor countries further behind in inoculations, increasing the vaccine inequity, complicating global efforts to tame the coronavirus including more infectious variants, and exposing fresh pleas for a global treaty on pandemics as rather hollow.

South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are among countries to be hit by shipment delays to vaccines they have been promised under the Covax programme, which was created mainly to ensure supplies for poorer countries.

"Our planned increase in daily vaccinations will be affected," said Carlito Galvez, the Philippines' vaccination chief.

India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, put a temporary hold on exports of AstraZeneca's vaccine being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, as officials focus on meeting rising domestic demand.

The institute was due to deliver 90 million vaccine doses to Covax over March and April and, while it was not immediately clear how many would be diverted for domestic use, programme facilitators warned that shipment delays were inevitable.

In Indonesia, health ministry official Siti Nadia Tarmizi said that 10.3 million doses from Covax were likely delayed until May.

South Korea confirmed it would only receive 432,000 doses of the 690,000 it had been promised and delivery of those would be delayed until around the third week of April.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte loosened government restrictions on private sector imports of vaccines, pleading with companies to obtain supplies no matter the cost, as his country battles a resurgence of the pandemic.

In Vietnam, officials have similarly asked the private sector to step in after their Covax supplies were slashed by 40 per cent to 811,200 doses and shipments were pushed back by weeks.

India has not provided details on the length of its export curb but Unicef, a distributing partner of Covax, said at the weekend that deliveries are expected to resume by May.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday Covax needed 10 million doses immediately as a stop-gap measure.

Data from Unicef showed on Tuesday that India itself had received more than a third of the nearly 28 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines from Covax so far, the most of any country.

News that the largest allocation of the programme's Indian-made vaccines had never actually left India could add to criticism of New Delhi and Covax.

The Gavi alliance, which co-leads Covax with the WHO, said India had been given a big allocation early, in part because it approved the vaccine for emergency use before the WHO did.

Africa is overwhelmingly dependent on Covax and nearly all the 89 million shots the continent was due to receive through the initiative by end of this quarter were AstraZeneca from India. A Reuters tally of deliveries found that just 15 million have been delivered so far.

China and Russia are primed to step into the breach. Both the Philippines and Indonesia are currently relying heavily on vaccines from China's Sinovac Biotech to run their inoculation drives.

The Philippines and Vietnam have both approved Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, along with more than 50 other countries, mainly developing nations. The Philippines expects to receive its first batch of Sputnik V in April. REUTERS

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