After administering over 113.61 crore COVID-19 vaccines to its citizens till Tuesday night, India announced that it would resume vaccine exports for four countries — Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Iran.
As India gears up to renew its vaccine exports, called Vaccine Maitri, here’s everything you need to know about the scheme and why it was cancelled.
Beginning of Vaccine Maitri
In January 2021, India launched the Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship) initiative – a major diplomatic effort to gift and supply made-in-India vaccines to low-income and developing countries globally.
Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Morocco, South Africa, Afghanistan, Mexico, DR Congo, Nigeria and the United Kingdom were among some of the beneficiaries of the Vaccine Maitri initiative.
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) January 22, 2021
As of 29 May, data from the Ministry of External Affairs showed that India had exported 6.63 crore doses to other countries of which 10.7 crore went as a grant, whereas 35.7 crore doses were given in a commercial capacity.
With 10.3 crore doses, Bangladesh received the most COVID-19 doses under the Vaccine Maitri programme.
India kicked off international shipment of the vaccines on 20 January 2021, only four days after starting its own vaccination program. Bhutan and Maldives were the first countries to receive vaccines as a grant by India.
India’s vaccine diplomacy served as an effective tool and instrument of Indian soft-power and influence, serving to cement and deepen ties in India’s neighbourhood and Indo-Pacific.
Many believed at the time that India’s vaccine diplomacy could translate into critical votes at a time when India has secured a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and is scheduled to host the G20 summit in 2023. The goodwill India earns through its vaccine diplomacy could pay dividends in the future.
Vaccine Maitri comes to a halt
However, India’s export of coronavirus vaccines came to a halt in in April, with India facing a severe shortage for its immunisation programme amid a surging second wave.
Pavan K Varma, former Janata Dal (United) leader and a former diplomat in a column in the Times of India wrote that Vaccine Maitri was based on "an erroneous impression that India had ‘conquered’ the virus, and was thus in a position to be magnanimous to the needs of others because its own had been met".
Questioning the policy, he further wrote, "It was a noble gesture, but it missed out that in this bathos of international goodwill, India had inoculated less than 10 percent of its own people. The vicious velocity of the second wave caught our benevolence completely off guard. The unseemly polarity between the ‘pharmacy of the world’ gifting vaccines, and its own citizens running from pillar to post to get vaccinated, was stark."
Former diplomat KC Singh too tweeted several times that the country was indulging in "vaccine diplomacy" amid initial concerns that the number of doses exported was more than those administered domestically.
Amid the criticism from the Opposition over the exports of COVID-19 vaccines, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in April had hit back saying those who questioned the policy were “short-sighted” and also “irresponsible and non-serious” people.
The minister said India cannot just expect raw materials, for the vaccine, from other countries and then not send them the final product.
"I would say the blame-game wallahs will have their attitude and their approach. As serious people, let’s look at it. Today, as foreign minister, I am pushing other countries, particularly some big countries, saying look please keep the raw materials flowing for vaccines to be made in India. Can I, on one hand, go around the world and tell people ‘guys keep your supply chains flowing towards me and I am asking you for raw material but I’m not going to give you the vaccine’?” he said, lambasting the Vaccine Maitri critics.
On 20 September, Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya had announced that India's vaccine diplomacy would restart in October.
In line with India's motto of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, India will resume Vaccine Maitri in October.
— Office of Dr Mansukh Mandaviya (@OfficeOf_MM) September 21, 2021
The decision came just before Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Washington visit, where COVID-19 vaccines were discussed at length during the QUAD summit.
Following Mandaviya's announcement, the exports began in October and it was reported that India has already given 10 lakh vaccine doses each to four countries - Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Iran.
Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute of India, which manufacture Covaxin and Covishield respectively, have stepped up their processes, providing the country with 280 million doses in October.
Owing to the increase in production, the government has decided to export the surplus to other nations.
A recent PTI report also said that the Centre had permitted the export of five crore doses of Covovax, Serum Institute's COVID-19 vaccine, to Indonesia.
Despite exports beginning, the programme won’t gain significant momentum until next year. In October, Serum Institute's CEO Adar Poonawalla had suggested that large volumes would be going to COVAX — the international vaccine-sharing initiative backed by the World Health Organisation — by January 2022.
Similarly, VK Paul, who heads the Indian government’s COVID-19 task force, also placed greater expectations on 2022, saying that “a huge, huge availability of vaccines can be visualised for next year” rather than in 2021.
Indian has given the first dose to nearly 78 percent of the eligible population, and around 38 percent are fully vaccinated.
With inputs from agencies