'Pharmacy of the World will deliver': India begins COVID-19 vaccine exports

India said it will be shipping to Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh and more.

“First consignment takes off for Bhutan!” was the first of a flurry of tweets from the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Anurag Srivastava, as he posted pictures of batches leaving and arriving at different destinations, “Indian vaccines reach Maldives, reflects our special friendship.”

“India is deeply honoured to be a long-trusted partner in meeting the healthcare needs of the global community,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted Tuesday as he announced the first shipments would be sent today.

India is sending these vaccine batches “under grant assistance”, a foreign ministry press release said, as the government had “received several requests for the supply of Indian manufactured vaccines from neighboring and key partner countries.”

Dubbed “Neighbourhood First”, Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy focus has often been on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbors, which would explain the destination of these first vaccine shipments.

India’s External Affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said his country was fulfilling “its commitment to give vaccines to humanity…The Pharmacy of the World will deliver to overcome the COVID challenge,” he tweeted. India is home to the world’s largest vaccine producer by volume, the Serum Institute of India (SII), based in Pune.

The Serum Institute is producing the vaccine developed by Oxford University and Astra Zeneca under the local brand name COVISHIELD and will distribute it to India, its neighboring countries and other low and middle income countries.

SII is currently producing approximately 60 million doses of COVISHIELD a month and aims to increase this to a 100 million doses by March. SII has also agreed to supply COVAX, the WHO backed alliance created to ensure equitable access to vaccines, with 200 million doses to be distributed at the beginning of 2021.

But the Serum Institute is not the only major vaccine producer in India. Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN vaccine was also authorized for use by the Indian government in early January.

At the time this move was criticized with several experts accusing the government of rushing their decision as the data from the vaccine’s phase 3 trials had not been published.

Full data on the vaccine’s efficacy is still awaited and COVAXIN is not part of these initial exports but, alongside COVISHIELD, is being rolled out internally.

India kicked off the world’s largest vaccination program last Saturday and aims to reach 1.3 billion people as quickly as possible.

India’s announcement of these vaccine exports comes at a time when the international community is warning that many lower income countries are being left behind in the global vaccine roll out.

"The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure," World Health Organization Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday at the opening of the WHO's annual executive board meeting. "The price for this failure will be paid for with lives and livelihoods in the world's poorest countries."

India’s announcement was immediately met with approval by Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and infectious disease expert who advises the U.K. government.

“This is a very important and very much appreciated move from India to supply vaccines globally in an equitable way. A public health, scientific & economic imperative,” he tweeted.

Today’s move makes India the first to provide vaccines to these countries in southern Asia, putting it ahead of China and indeed COVAX.

Significantly, it will not be shipping any vaccines to its direct neighbor Pakistan with whom bilateral trade has broken down due to political disagreements over the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir.