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Fears of growing COVID-19 vax stockpile, expiry likely to push exports

The central government on Tuesday took stock of the quantity of Covid vaccines available for export, with official sources indicating that vaccine exports are likely to go up as more and more stock becomes available in the country.

The meeting was held between the Ministry of Health and the Department of Pharmaceuticals to get a preliminary picture of available doses with manufacturers. The health ministry will soon be holding talks with the Ministry of External Affairs to settle on the number of countries and amount of doses for export.

Industry sources have also said that pressure is building up on the government to allow exports on a large scale as vaccine stockpile balloons.

At present, states have a stockpile of 219 million unused doses. Private sector hospitals have around 10 million doses. In November, the private sector ordered less than 50,000 shots.

The shelf life of vaccines for available stock is till April-May. However, at least 15-20 per cent of the unused stock is expected to expire in December.

Vaccine exports from India were halted amid rising Covid cases. Supplies to the World Health Organization (WHO)-led COVAX, a global initiative for equitable distribution of Covid vaccines, have begun this month.

India has exported 66.3 million Covid vaccine doses till April, of which 10.7 million have gone out as grant from the Indian government, 35.7 million as commercial exports by vaccine makers, and 19.8 million to COVAX.

Source in the vaccine industry said once production is scaled up, abruptly reducing volumes is a challenge.

“For a vaccine manufacturing process to happen seamlessly, one has to coordinate the supply chain of the raw material, and then begin one batch. We have already repurposed the existing lines to make Covid jabs. Now they cannot be suddenly switched back. If one has a long-term view of demand, then requisite adjustments can be made on production,” he added.

The Serum Institute of India (SII) supplies to the WHO-led COVAX initiative. While exports to COVAX have started, volumes are expected to pick up in the months to come. The manufacturing partner has to indicate the volume it can make available to COVAX, after which COVAX shares the distribution plan with the vaccine maker, who, in turn, ships it to the countries COVAX asks it to supply to. For SII to increase supplies to COVAX, the Indian government has to now indicate the quantity of doses it can export. The company is already shipping the Novavax vaccine — Covovax — to Indonesia this week in small volumes after the South Asian country approved the shot.

SII has a storage capacity in excess of 100 million doses or so at its plant for the finished product. It has already requested the government to ensure faster offtake.

Pune-based SII is leading the pack when it comes to the production of Covid shots. It is making 220 million doses a month now, while its peer Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech is making 55-60 million doses a month.

By December, Bharat Biotech targets 80 million doses a month, taking the combined capacity from these two vaccines to 300 million doses in December-January. On the other hand, the current usage in the country is around 150-200 million doses a month, leaving a significant stock under-utilised. From December, Ahmedabad-based Zydus Cadila’s 10 million monthly doses are also likely to come on stream, adding further volumes.

Biological E, too, is getting ready to launch its protein subunit vaccine Corbevax with 100 million initial doses from next month or so.

From the first quarter of next calendar year, SII-produced Novavax vaccine is also likely to be available. Business Standard