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Covid: India’s need delays supplying Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to UK

In Britain, over 25 million people have received their first dose but the speed of the vaccination rollout may be affected if the Indian supply does not arrive soon

Amit Roy   |   London   |   Published 19.03.21, 01:04 AM

India is delaying supplying the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to the UK because the doses are needed at home to tackle rising Covid cases and is not seeking to punish Britain for the recent debate held by its MPs on the farmers’ dispute, media reports have said.

A Daily Telegraph report confirmed there would be a delay in Britain receiving 5 million doses of the vaccine from the Serum Institute of India but added: “British MPs’ criticism of the Indian government’s alleged use of force against peacefully protesting farmers was not behind the delay, according to a source, with exports to other countries also being held.”

In Britain over 25 million people have received their first dose but the speed of the vaccination rollout may be affected if the Indian supply does not arrive soon.

The Daily Mail’s headline — “India ‘blocks UK jabs’” — was not calculated to improve relations between London and Delhi.

The paper said: “The UK was expecting 10 million doses of the Oxford-made vaccine from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, but the company has only delivered five million so far.”

It summed up: “A row is developing over Britain’s vaccine shortage that will see first doses mostly halted in April as the UK points the finger at India and accuses it of delaying a shipment of AstraZeneca jabs.”

The trouble began on Wednesday with the “shocking” disclosure that the National Health Service had asked doctors to stop offering vaccination to people under 50 next month because of a problem with supplies.

At first, the entire media assumed this was because supplies from the European Union were being blocked because of a row over a number of issues with the UK. But then in the early hours of Thursday, the BBC broke the news that the anticipated shortage had nothing to do with the EU, but with India.

“Covid vaccine: India shortfall behind UK’s supply delay,” it said.

The BBC reported: “An expected reduction in the UK’s Covid vaccine supply in April is partly due to a delay in a delivery from India of five million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses. The shipment, produced by the Serum Institute of India, has been held up by four weeks, the BBC has been told.”

The BBC got a statement from Serum Institute: “Five million doses had been delivered a few weeks ago to the UK and we will try to supply more later, based on the current situation and the requirement for the government immunisation programme in India.”

The chief executive of the Serum Institute, Adar Poonawalla, who has had a flattering press in Britain — until now — both for his good looks and his socially conscious policies, is clearly angry he is being blamed for a delay that is not his fault.

In an interview on Thursday with The Daily Telegraph, he hit back: “We have supplied 5 million doses to the UK. I don’t know what are they (his detractors in the British media) talking about.”

He confirmed that a shipment of 5 million doses “was supplied to AstraZeneca and they gave it to the UK few weeks ago, I think. There was media coverage of it.”

As for the other half, “it is solely dependent on India. It has nothing to do with the SII. It is to do with the Indian government allowing more doses to the UK.”

He emphasised that “there is no stipulated contract period and time in which I am supposed to deliver these doses. I am helping as I can and when I can AstraZeneca and the UK to supply these doses.

“There is no vaccine shortage. There was never a commitment to supplying doses to the UK in any stipulated time. We just said we would offer our help. India has allowed 5 million doses to go to the UK. The balance doses will be decided to be given to the UK at an appropriate time by the Indian government. While balancing India and all its needs at the same time.

“This clarifies the point that we are not delayed at all giving anything to the UK because there was nothing stipulated that in any finite amount of time were we supposed to deliver 10 million doses. And of course, don’t forget we are primarily supplying the CoVax to poorer nations as they are the ones who have not got the doses. So there is really no question of any delay to the UK from Serum Institute.”

In a separate interview with Bloomberg, Poonawalla said he was waiting for a directive from a “cautious” Indian government and did not want to anger New Delhi, which was requesting more vaccine doses than the SII had initially allocated.

“We had to dedicate a lot of our capacity, which was not originally planned for India. We’re trying to balance it out as much as possible, but again for the first few months we have been directed to prioritise supplies to India and certain other countries that have a high disease burden,” said Poonawalla.

The Indian government had objected to a group of British MPs debating the farmers’ dispute and press freedom in India. This debate did not take place in the House of Commons but in a committee room in Portcullis House, an overflow building which is not part of the Palace of Westminster.

It may be the debate was fast-tracked but that was a decision made not by the British government but the “petitions’ committee”. This organises debate on petitions that attract more than 100,000 signatures from members of the public.

The accusation that the MPs were engaging in “vote bank politics” is also not entirely accurate. It was, in fact, the other way round. The MPs had pressure put on them mainly by their Punjabi constituents with links to India’s farming communities.

Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi are expected to sort out bilateral issues when the British Prime Minister flies to India on April 26.

“I am delighted to announce that I will visit India next month to strengthen our friendship with the world’s biggest democracy,” Johnson said.

Even though he suffered a critical bout of Covid last year, the 56-year-old has had to wait his turn for a vaccine.

Johnson is mindful that several European countries have paused the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine over blood clot fears even though the regulatory authorities and the WHO have declared it as safe.

Not to miss the chance of a photo opportunity and make a political point, Johnson has announced: “I think perhaps the best thing I can say about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine programme is that I finally got news that I’m going to have my own jab... very shortly I’m pleased to discover. It will certainly be Oxford/AstraZeneca that I will be having.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock said vaccine supply was “always lumpy, but were on course”, while the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, asked by the BBC if India was to blame, replied diplomatically: “It would not be right to pin blame on any one manufacturer, they are working incredibly hard.… It is to be expected there will be some ups and downs. A number of global manufacturers are experiencing issues.”


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