India will begin to ship out lakhs of doses of the novel coronavirus vaccine to neighbouring countries beginning Wednesday, with the first batches expected to reach Bhutan and the Maldives among several countries by special planes as a grant or gift.
“India is deeply honoured to be a long-trusted partner in meeting the healthcare needs of the global community,” PM Narendra Modi said, announcing the shipments, while External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said the “pharmacy of the world will deliver to overcome the COVID challenge”. The MEA said shipments to Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Seychelles would commence this week, while those to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Mauritius are awaiting “necessary regulatory clearances”.
The release of the shipments is part of the government’s “Neighbourhood First” initiative, and will make India the first country to reach COVID-19 vaccines in South Asia, ahead of China which has promised but not so far delivered, and the World Health Organisation and GAVI’s vaccine alliance programme. The region’s preference for Indian vaccines, including the Covishield from the Serum Institute of India (SII) developed with Oxford University and Astra Zeneca, and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, is based on the cost, easier storage requirements and geographical proximity, the officials said, adding that Pakistan has neither requested nor is India discussing supplies to it at present.
Bhutan would receive the first shipment of 1,50,000 Covishield vaccines on Wednesday morning. Sources told The Hindu that the government hopes to ship about 1 million doses to Thimphu, the country it shares the closest ties with in the neighbourhood. In a social media post, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering said his government had decided to stockpile the vaccines to roll out a mass vaccination programme for its targeted population of 5,33,000 people over a week, after what he called the “inauspicious period” between February 14-March 13 was over.
“As we wait, we will also get to learn from experience, possible side effects and lessons of other countries who have rolled out the programme,” Mr. Tshering wrote.
Maldives is due to receive its first shipment on Wednesday at 2.30 p.m., with about 1,00,000 doses meant to reach Male’s Velana international airport by an Air India flight. Sources said India hoped to send more vaccines at a later date.
NITI Aayog member Vinod Paul, who heads the committee overseeing the distribution, said the details for each country “should happen soon,” while stressing that the government would continue to “ensure enough for India’s domestic requirement”. India has so far administered 4.5 lakh doses of Covishield and Covaxin in its vaccination drive that began on January 16, and has sourced a combined total of 1.65 crore doses from both companies. The first tranche being sent would come from this reserve, while future consignments are expected to be procured directly on a commercial basis.
Bangladesh’s Health and Family Welfare Ministry announced that Dhaka would also receive a batch of 20 lakh doses of Covishield, as part of a “friendly gesture”, to be delivered on Thursday. Beneficiaries will be asked to register online from January 26, said Dr. ABM Khurshid Alam, Director General of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).
Under an MoU signed last November, Beximco, one of the largest Bangladeshi pharmaceutical companies, will procure about 30 million vaccines from the SII on a commercial basis as well. Bangladesh has held phase-3 trials for the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, but the project has stalled for funding reasons. The Hasina government has already promised that vaccinations would be free of cost and written to the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency to help finance its drive to vaccinate as many of its population of 16.5 crore as necessary.
Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali is expected to announce the shipment schedule on Wednesday, as part of the approximately one million doses requested by him during his visit to Delhi last week.
Colombo is expecting the vaccines to arrive in about two weeks as, according to officials, it has not completed “internal processes to receive them” yet. In addition to signing up for the COVAX facility through the World Health Organisation, Sri Lanka has been in talks with China and Russia for vaccines. According to local media reports, WHO is expected to provide vaccines to 20% of Sri Lanka’s 21 million strong population.
The only exception to India’s regional vaccine diplomacy would be Pakistan, which has cleared the Astra Zeneca vaccine for use, but has neither requested nor discussed any doses from India yet. On Monday, Pakistan became the first country in South Asia to approve a Chinese vaccine, giving the green light for emergency use of Sinopharm’s vaccine. Its officials are also in talks with another Chinese company, Cansino Biologics, to procure “tens of millions” of doses, Pakistan’s Health Minister said.
(With inputs from Jacob Koshy)