Vaccine delay in Britain stirs equity debate in India

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An elderly Kashmiri Mohammad Amin receives the Covishield vaccine for COVID-19 at a primary health center in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Friday, March 19, 2021. India is third behind the United States and Brazil in total coronavirus infections. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

NEW DELHI – Indian health experts and activists on Friday said it was hypocritical for Britain to blame vaccine delays on India’s Serum Institute, amid a debate over equitable access stirred by comments from top officials in London.

Activists are saying the Serum Institute wasn’t meant to make vaccines for wealthy countries like Britain, and that after hoarding vaccines, London is now trying to get at supply chains meant for poorer nations. However, the exact details of the licensing agreements between the Serum Institute and AstraZeneca aren't known.

“A deep level of hypocrisy and self-serving behavior is on display,” said Malini Aisola of the All India Drug Action Network, a health watchdog.

According to K.M. Gopakumar of the advocacy group Third World Network, the Serum Institute is licensed to supply a billion doses for developing nations, while vaccines made in Europe were intended for wealthier countries like the U.K. In June, AstraZeneca said its partnership with the Serum Institute highlighted a “commitment to broad and equitable access.”

On Thursday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said a delayed delivery of AstraZeneca vaccines made by the Serum Institute, in addition to the need to retest them, would postpone its immunization program. The same day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the country would receive fewer vaccines than planned a week ago, in part because of a shortfall from the Serum Institute.

Britain’s deal to import 10 million doses of vaccines from India was part of an earlier order of 100 million doses from AstraZeneca, which was announced on March 4. Britain says the Serum Institute made assurances that these doses wouldn’t jeopardize supplies to poor nations.

The Serum Institute, meanwhile, said no “stipulated timeline” exists for the delivery of these vaccines, and that it's already sent 5 million doses some weeks ago. The rest will be sent later on, but will depend on India’s own requirements, the institute said.

The Indian government has not officially commented on the vaccine delays in Britain.