Image Courtesy: The Times of India

Is the criticism India is facing for its curbs on COVID-19 vaccine exports justified?

As the Indian government faces accusations of ‘vaccine nationalism’ from several Western nations for its purported decision to stop exports of COVID-19 vaccines produced in India, K RAVEENDRAN explains that it is the prosperous Western nations that are responsible for the global vaccine shortage.


India’s much-touted role as the ‘pharmacy of the world’ is under threat, thanks to a build-up of negative publicity on the perceived stoppage of the export of COVID-19 vaccines to other countries.

This build-up started with the Union Government’s reported decision to suspend exports in the wake of a sudden spike in the infection rate in the country as well as the need to mobilise enough doses to vaccinate a certain minimum percentage of the population.

The government has since clarified that there is no ban on the export of the vaccine, but this has not helped clear the air, with Western nations that have been a part of the COVAX initiative for funding vaccine manufacture for the benefit of poor countries, persisting with their criticism of India’s ‘vaccine nationalism’.

Also read: How Long Must Poorer Nations Wait for Access to Covid Vaccine?

With the vaccination drive at a critical stage as most nations face a second or third wave of infection with more virulent mutants of the virus, it is doubtful how well the Indian government has managed its global PR properly to ward off criticism.  All that the Union External Affairs Ministry spokesperson, clarifying the issue, said was that there is no ban and that India has already made it clear that exports would be undertaken keeping in view the domestic situation.

‘Vaccine nationalism’ allegation misplaced

Among the biggest critics of India’s so-called ‘vaccine nationalism’ is the UK, which has vaccinated half of its citizens with at least one dose, and with its supplies from India running into several millions of doses.

The British stand betrays complete hypocrisy in that it was one of the first countries to oppose a temporary waiver of vaccine patents by the World Trade Organisation that had been proposed by India and South Africa. This would have facilitated maximum production of COVID-19 vaccines so that poor and needy nations could be provided with enough supplies. The others nations that had opposed such a waiver included Canada and Brazil.

It is quite ironical that these very nations are now asking for more Indian supplies to meet their shortages.

According to the figures released by the External Affairs Ministry, India has already supplied 64 million doses of vaccines to 80 nations, out of which 18 million doses were by way of the COVAX initiative. The beneficiaries include Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, among others. Most of these supplies are from the Serum Institute in Pune, which is the biggest manufacturer of vaccines in the entire world.

The new surge in infection in the country has necessitated a step-up in the vaccination drive. India has so far vaccinated 65 million people, mostly comprising frontline workers and senior citizens aged 60 and above. The country has just announced the third phase of the vaccination programme, in which people above 45 years of age are to be covered. The government has set a target of 250 million vaccinations by July this year. This would necessitate a massive mobilisation of supplies.

Even under the COVAX initiative, India, as a poor country, is entitled to a substantial share of the vaccine produced by Serum Institute. As a result, about 10 million doses of the 28 million produced under the Covax initiative have been allocated to India. Serum had last year already declared its intended policy of releasing 50 percent for export while supplying the remaining quantities to the domestic requirement.

Rich countries responsible for vaccine shortages

There is a growing feeling outside India that the Covax initiative has erred in putting almost the entire manufacturing responsibility on Indian companies. But such an arrangement was necessitated by the Oxford University, one of the main vaccine developers, going back on its earlier stated policy of allowing any company anywhere in the world to manufacture its vaccine.

Despite the criticism being faced by India for its alleged vaccine nationalism, the rich nations have been largely responsible for creating supply shortages. They had bought more supplies than their reasonable requirements at the early stage of their respective vaccination drives, which limited the supplies available for other countries, particularly the poorer nations.

Also read: The COVID-19 Vaccine Frenzy and the Long Journey Ahead

For instance, countries such as US, UK, Brazil, Japan as well as the European Union nations are purchasing vaccines from wherever they are available. This has jeopardised the supplies for the poor nations, particularly those in the African continent, where the supply of cheap Indian generic drugs had helped contain major infections, including HIV and H1N1 outbreaks. (IPA Service)