By Krishna N. Das
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India itself has received more than a third of the nearly 28 million Indian-made AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses delivered so far by the global programme for poor countries, according to data from UNICEF and vaccine alliance Gavi.
The revelation that the largest allocation of doses India has supplied to the COVAX programme never actually left the country could add to criticism of India and COVAX, after New Delhi decided this month to delay big exports of vaccines that poor countries around the world had been counting on.
Data on UNICEF's website shows that India had received 10 million doses of vaccine from COVAX, the most of any country. Nigeria is second with about 4 million doses, though that is more per capita than India.
Many poor nations entirely reliant on the programme have so far received little or no vaccine.
Gavi, a network of countries, charities and companies that co-leads COVAX with the World Health Organization, said India was allocated the doses in January, when the country's drug regulator had approved the vaccine for emergency use, more than a month before the WHO did.
A Gavi spokeswoman told Reuters in an e-mail that supplying India early prevented the doses otherwise being idle. India is ultimately expected to receive about a fifth of the estimated 190 million to 250 million doses COVAX would distribute among poorer countries free of cost, she said.
Hundreds of millions of AstraZeneca doses made under license by the Serum Institute of India form the vast bulk of the initial order for COVAX, the global system set up to vaccinate people mainly in poor countries. Fifty million doses were meant to be delivered in April, but much of that order is likely to be delayed by India's new export restrictions.
COVAX aims to provide 2 billion vaccine doses this year. UN children's agency UNICEF distributes the shots. But the programme has so far gotten off to a slow start, with officials complaining that rich countries have hoarded most early doses of vaccines.
India, the world's biggest maker of vaccines, has reported 12 million COVID-19 cases, the most after the United States and Brazil. So far it has exported 64 million vaccine doses, more than the 60.4 million inoculations conducted at home. The government is under pressure to step up the domestic vaccine programme.
India's health ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.
The SII has an agreement with COVAX to supply its licensed version of the AstraZeneca drug, which it sells as Covishield, to 64 countries.
India's move to suspend major vaccine exports has alarmed many countries, mainly in Africa and Asia. The head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control, a continent-wide body, said last week he felt "helpless".
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Peter Graff)