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Government has not restricted vaccine makers and will not ban commercial exports, say officials

The government has not restricted both the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech from supplying vaccines abroad, and no bans will be instituted on commercial exports going forward, senior government officials have clarified to Moneycontrol.

On May 18, SII CEO Adar Poonawalla said in a public statement that the company has never exported vaccines at the cost of the people in India and remains committed to support the vaccination drive in the country.

Poonawalla said that the statement was necessitated by the intense discussions on the decision of the government and companies to export vaccines abroad. He also added that SII hopes to reinstate vaccine supply to the global COVAX initiative by the end of the year.

However, the overwhelming majority of SII’s global supply commitments remain unfinished as the company tries to raise manufacturing volumes for the domestic market. SII was reminded of its pending global vaccine commitments by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the same day.

While the current outbreak in India should be first dealt with, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that SII ‘will need to get back on track and catch up’ after that.

“The government is focused on battling the pandemic with the support of India’s domestic entrepreneurs. It lauds the companies for prioritizing the domestic market given the intensity of the second wave. However, they are free to export if they have enough doses,” a senior official said.

Moneycontrol had first reported on April 12 that after much deliberation, a high level inter-ministerial panel had decided not to block commercial vaccine exports.

Officials had said the government is well within its powers to order restrictions on commercial exports, given that the current Foreign Trade Policy allows India to take unilateral action regarding a traded item to meet its domestic requirements.

However, they continue to remind that such a step would have diplomatic consequences. “We have not stopped vaccine exports simply because other, poorer countries, many of whom are allies, need it,” a senior official tasked with overseeing the problem of balancing domestic supply and global commitments, said.

He added: “Also, India can’t be seen to pursue two separate positions in terms of global vaccine and medicine availability. The government is pushing for the temporary suspension of a global intellectual property rights rule to democratize vaccine availability. So, it can’t also unilaterally stop vaccines from leaving the country.”

With successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic cycling through various nations, the demand for vaccines is now picking up in the poorer global South. Some nations among this grouping have also made advance payments to the companies for their purchases.

Sources say both Indian companies, especially SII, are already negotiating a tightrope with regards to foreign supplies and run the risk of potentially drowning in lawsuits and foreign penalties if they fail to honour their contracts and deliver shipments.

The daily number of new COVID-19 cases has remained below the 3-lakh mark for the third consecutive day as on May 18.

However, the pace of vaccination has considerably declined over the past two months, mostly owing to a shortage of vaccines. On May 18, the number of daily doses administered came down to 13.56 lakh.

While an average 40-lakh odd doses were administered at the beginning of April, it had dropped to 20-lakh doses, on an average, in the beginning of May. The highest number of doses administered on a single day was 42 lakhs on 2 April. Moneycontrol

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