By Krishna N. Das
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India has put a temporary hold on all major exports of the AstraZeneca coronavirus shot made by the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's biggest vaccine-maker, to meet domestic demand as infections rise, two sources told Reuters.
The move will also affect supplies to the GAVI/WHO-backed COVAX vaccine-sharing facility through which more than 180 countries are expected to get doses, one of the sources said.
COVAX has so far received 17.7 million AstraZeneca doses from the SII, of the 60.5 million doses India has shipped in total, and many countries are relying on the programme to immunise their citizens.
There have been no vaccine exports from India since Thursday, the foreign ministry's website shows, as the country expands its own immunisation effort.
"Everything else has taken a backseat, for the time being at least," said one of the sources. Both sources had direct knowledge of the matter, but declined to be named as the discussions are not public.
"No exports, nothing till the time the India situation stabilises. The government won't take such a big chance at the moment when so many need to be vaccinated in India."
India's foreign ministry and the SII did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
SOME DELAYS ALREADY The SII has already delayed shipments of the AstraZeneca drug to Brazil, Britain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency that is procuring and distributing vaccines for COVAX, had no comment.
COVAX has a deal to buy 1.1 billion doses of the AstraZeneca and Novavax shots that the SII is making in bulk, mainly for low- and middle-income countries.
UNICEF in Vietnam said in a statement on Wednesday that vaccine production issues had led to delays in deliveries to all countries that were due to receive vaccines through COVAX.
It did not specify the origin of those delays, although Vietnam was not expected to receive doses from the SII.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cabinet decided this week to widen its inoculation drive by including everyone above 45 from April 1, and many states battling a surge in infections have demanded that all adults be covered.
With 11.7 million cases, India has reported the highest number of coronavirus infections after the United States and Brazil.
Currently, only the elderly and those over 45 with other health conditions are eligible for vaccinations in India. Health and frontline workers were first in line when India began its drive in mid-January.
India has so far administered more than 51 million doses, of which 47 million are the SII's locally-made version of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The rest is the COVAXIN vaccine developed in India by Bharat Biotech.
The government has so far asked the SII to supply around 141 million doses. The company has also accounted for nearly all of India's vaccine exports.
The SII plans to boost monthly production to 100 million doses from April/May, from up to 70 million now, Reuters reported earlier this month.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; additional reporting by Allasdair Pal, Euan Rocha and Neha Arora; editing by Barbara Lewis)