Doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford could be available for purchase in India as soon as March, according to one manufacturer, in the first sign that the sought-after jab will make its way on to the private market.
Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, has a licence to produce the shot and has already manufactured 40m doses. Once the job is approved for use, Serum will initially supply the Indian government but then expects to sell 20m-30m doses to private facilities, according to Adar Poonawalla, chief executive.
“Everybody’s asking ‘When can I access the vaccine?’ I’ve told those guys it’s probably going to be March or April,” Mr Poonawalla told the Financial Times.
Pharmaceutical companies worldwide have already ramped up production of several experimental vaccines in anticipation of forthcoming regulatory approvals. Billions of doses are expected to be produced next year for governments that have signed forward purchase agreements to inoculate their citizens, starting with those most vulnerable to the disease.
In the UK, which last Wednesday approved the first Covid-19 vaccine for use, public health officials have said that vaccinations will be run by the NHS and that none of the government-procured jabs will be sold to private clinics.
Pfizer, the US pharmaceuticals group that has developed a Covid-19 vaccine with BioNTech, said recently that it had “no plans” to supply the jab to the private sector “for the foreseeable future”.
But the future availability of vaccines for sale privately in other countries, such as India, increases the likelihood of a secondary market developing for vaccines where locals or foreign visitors could pay for a vaccination if not eligible to be inoculated under their own government’s scheme.
“If it’s in the private market it opens up an inequity issue, you’re letting people jump the queue,” said Anant Bhan, health researcher at Yenepoya University in southern India. “At the end of the day, this is a pandemic and there is a requirement for a public health response.”
Serum expects the AstraZeneca vaccine to retail for about Rs600 ($8) in the private market in India. For the Indian government Serum has set a “philanthropic price” of $3 a dose, Mr Poonawalla said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has indicated it may need 300m doses before July 2021, with frontline health workers and the elderly given priority, but is waiting for the vaccine to be approved by regulators before it places an order, he said.
Once the AstraZeneca shot is approved for emergency use in the UK, Mr Poonawalla expects it will be cleared shortly after by India’s regulator and could be rolled out by the government as soon as January.
AstraZeneca said: “The agreements with our partners around the world, including the Serum Institute of India, prioritise the supply to all governments and multilateral organisations in order to honour our commitment to broad and equitable access at no profit during the pandemic.”
Experts say India will face tremendous challenges in vaccinating its 1.4bn people. With more than 9.5m infections and 139,000 deaths, the country has the world’s second-highest number of coronavirus cases and the virus is spreading during the cold, polluted winter.
“Meticulous planning is necessary and that’s where India is the weakest,” said T Jacob John, former head of the department of virology and microbiology at Christian Medical College (Vellore).
With cases still rising in India, he also warned that vaccine security could become an issue. “If there’s a scramble for a vaccine, that is asking for corruption,” he said. “If the vaccine is good, but the supply is low, crooks will come up with a black market supply.”