India to start COVID-19 vaccine exports as soon as Wednesday: sources

NEW DELHI: India, one of the world's biggest drugmakers, will start exports of COVID-19 vaccines as early as Wednesday, government sources said, paving the way for many mid- and lower-income countries to secure supplies of the easy-to-store Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

The first batch of exports will be shipped to the tiny nation of Bhutan, said the officials, who asked not to be named as no formal announcement has yet been made in India.

Two million doses of the Covishield vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University and manufactured by Serum Institute of India (SII), will also be despatched to Bangladesh on Thursday, said the officials briefed on the plans.

Bangladesh's foreign ministry confirmed the plan, saying a special flight from India carrying the first consignment will land in Dhaka on Thursday.

"Bangladesh will receive 2 million doses of Oxford-Astrazenca Covid-19 vaccines from India as a gift on Jan. 21," it said in a statement.

SII, the world's largest maker of vaccines, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last week SII told Reuters it soon expected emergency use authorisation from the World Health Organization (WHO) for the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot, which it has been licensed to make for dozens of low- and middle-income countries.

That would pave the way for SII to begin supplies to the WHO-backed COVAX initiative aimed at fairly distributing COVID-19 shots across the world.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which can be stored at refrigerator temperature, is widely viewed as a more viable option for many poorer nations than shots from Pfizer and Moderna which need to be stored at very low temperatures.

India has received requests from dozens of nations, including urgent appeals from Brazil, to begin exports of the vaccine from the SII centre in the western city of Pune.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, however, wanted to roll out the vaccination drive at home before launching exports, one of the sources said.

India began giving shots of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as another developed by Bharat Biotech, to health workers on Saturday.

The country plans to start exporting Bharat Biotech's vaccine at a later stage.

Another source said landlocked Bhutan would get its Oxford/AstraZeneca shots free. "We will begin from tomorrow, other neighbouring countries will follow soon," the source said.

Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar and the Maldives have all made requests for early delivery of vaccines.