India’s Suspension of Vaccine Export: A Wakeup Call

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The recent decision by the Indian government to temporarily halt exportation of its AstraZeneca vaccine is one that comes with grave implications and calls for sober reflections and decisive actions. In a move that continues to cause trepidation for over 190 countries under the COVAX scheme, led by the World Health Organisation (WHO), India announced that it was suspending vaccine exports to focus on its domestic vaccination programme. The decision followed the alarming spike in COVID-19 cases in the country, with as many as 700 new variants of the coronavirus recently discovered.

In a recent interview, Adar Poonawalla, head of the Serum Institute of India, which produces the AstraZeneca vaccine, unequivocally declared, “We are prioritising the needs of India.” On a more disturbing note, however, Poonawalla added that while the suspension is meant to last for two months, the major factor to determine resumption of vaccine exports is a drastic reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases in the country. According to him, without this decline, “we are going to have to keep supplying to India, and not anywhere else. Because we have to protect our nation.”

It is important to note that while this move by India appears to be receiving more global attention – especially since it involves the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturing company and affecting hundreds of countries – the nationalisation of COVID-19 vaccine has been ongoing for a while. Indeed, one of the factors that triggered India’s cataclysmic decision was the refusal of the United States and other countries to allow exportation of certain key ingredients needed for vaccine production.

Faced with increasing number of infections and fatalities, the US government, led by Joe Biden, recently invoked the Defence Production Act, a law that allows the government to nationalise commercial production in emergencies.  Since then, only the US-based Pfizer has access to COVID-19 vaccines raw materials produced in the country. Similarly, the European Union has mandated that vaccine manufacturers in the EU must ensure that countries within the union are considered before others. Referring to AstraZeneca, in particular, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen said the company must “catch up” on deliveries to the EU before exporting doses elsewhere.

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While there is no denying that the decision by India and other countries to secure their vaccines and prioritise their own population may adversely affect the dependent nations and worsen the pandemic situation globally, it must be emphasised that the decision cannot be totally faulted. Charity must always begin at home and it would be imprudent for any nation to cater for the need of other nations at the expense of its local populace. What nations like Nigeria that depend on India for their vaccine supply can do for now, is to earnestly hope that the expected decline in the number of infections in the benefactor-nation happens sooner. This is an inevitable part of the burden of dependency; the receiver must always be at the mercy of the giver.

Alternatively, however, the Nigerian government can make contingency arrangements with other vaccine producers in collaboration with the WHO to ensure that the shortfall being experienced as a result of the temporary halt from India is mitigated. This will help in sustaining the fight against the virus in the country.

Moreover, it is judicious that the federal government has ordered that vaccinations should stop across the country once 50 per cent of the 3.92 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine it had received from India are administered. According to reports, the order became necessary in order to ensure that the remaining 50 per cent are used to administer the second jab to those who have already had their first jabs. However, this development also means that those who are yet to receive their first jabs would have to wait for the arrival of more vaccines into the country.

While the country remains cautiously optimistic, the Nigerian government must renew the task of sensitising the citizenry on the need to exercise vigilance in observing the COVID-19 protocols. Since herd immunity is increasingly becoming difficult with the state of things globally, adhering to safety guidelines – such as mask wearing, sanitising and maintaining social distance – remains the only way to stop the spread of the virus.

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Most importantly, however, it is our expectation that the ongoing vaccine nationalisation policies in different countries, will jolt the Nigerian government to heed the persistent calls by stakeholders in the health sector to pay more serious attention to local production of medicines and vaccines. It is indeed appalling that despite the abundance of human and natural resources – including multitudes of medicinal plants – that Nigeria is blessed with, the nation continues to depend on other countries for over 70% of its drug needs, even at such a critical time as this. Indigenous pharmaceutical scientists, researchers and manufacturers have continued to lament the abysmally poor support they get from the government – a situation which has stunted many potentially beneficial research works and manufacturing initiatives.

It is time for the Nigerian government to seriously begin to strategise and take concrete steps towards salvaging the nation from the list of dependent and beggarly nations in terms of finished pharmaceutical products, raw materials, manpower and technologies. Ensuring national sufficiency and drug security is non-negotiable in curbing diseases, reducing mortality and catering for other healthcare needs.

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