Countries seek doses of SII’s Covishield after concerns over Chinese vaccine
Several countries that have been offered or purchased Chinese Covid-19 vaccines, including Brazil and Cambodia, have turned to India for supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine amid questions about the efficacy of some of the Chinese jabs.
India is receiving numerous requests for vaccines, both as grant assistance and commercial supplies, and these have increased since New Delhi rolled out nearly five million doses of Covishield, the AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India, for seven countries in the neighbourhood.
On Friday, India rolled out two million doses as commercial supplies to Brazil, where the question of opting between the AstraZeneca vaccine and Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine is at the heart of differences between President Jair Bolsonaro and several governors, including Sao Paulo governor João Doria, widely seen as Bolsonaro’s main rival for the 2022 presidential race.
Bolsonaro had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 8 to expedite the shipping of two million doses of Covishield as he hoped to launch the vaccination drive from the presidential palace this week. At the time, however, India was yet to launch its own vaccination drive and officials were working out the timeframe for rolling out vaccine grants and commercial supplies.
Doria subsequently launched the vaccination drive with CoronaVac, and Brazil plans to cover 230 million people with its vaccination drive. People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that Brazil intends to acquire more of the AstraZeneca jab and also manufacture it.
Indonesia, which has received three million doses of CoronaVac for its free vaccination drive, too is looking to acquire the AstraZeneca vaccine from India. Indonesia’s Indofarma company is in talks with the Serum Institute to procure Covishield. “Hopefully, this will be realised soon,” said a person aware of the discussions.
On Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made a request for vaccine assistance from India during a meeting with Indian envoy Devyani Khobragade. Officials in Phnom Penh said the country is interested in both Covishield and Covaxin, which is made by Bharat Biotech, as they can be stored at temperatures suitable for Cambodia.
China, one of the biggest supporters of Cambodia that has provided soft loans worth billions of dollars, has donated one million doses of Sinovac vaccine to vaccinate 500,000 people. However, the people cited above said Cambodia will need many more doses to cover a majority of its population of nearly 17 million.
At the same time, questions have been raised about the efficacy of CoronaVac after trials in Brazil demonstrated an efficacy rate of around 50% – significantly lower than the vaccines from AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer. A trial in Indonesia also showed an efficacy of 65.3%.
Though Sinovac is conducting trials in several countries, experts have questioned its lack of openness and noted the company has not released much data. John Moore, a vaccine researcher with Weill Cornell Medicine, told NPR: “It's science by press release. The Chinese are being, well, characteristically less than transparent.”
Former ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, distinguished fellow for foreign policy studies at Gateway House, said: “If you look at it from the viewpoint of beneficiary countries, no single supplier can provide their entire need for vaccines and they are looking for more options. They cannot say no to China and some vaccines may not be up to the mark though they want to exercise other options.
“There is a clear preference for multiple options, and India is preferred option for potential beneficiary countries because of its global reputation as a vaccine manufacturer. Besides, the Serum Institute has the Oxford-AstraZeneca connection. This is good for Indian diplomacy in both South Asia and the extended neighbourhood.”