London-based Zimbabwean billionaire Strive Masiyiwa has criticized the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, for planning to extend its pause on COVID-19 vaccine exports until the end of 2021. The manufacturer had swiftly made the decision due to an unexpected surge in COVID-19 cases in India.
In a statement on May 18, Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla was quoted by The Zimbabwe Mail as saying: “We continue to scale up manufacturing and prioritize India. We also hope to start delivering to COVAX and other countries by the end of this year.”
The institute chief added: “We would like to reiterate that we have never exported vaccines at the cost of the people in India and remain committed to do everything we can in the support of the vaccination drive in the country.”
Responding to the decision, Masiyiwa said he was feeling “beyond anger” with the manufacturer. He also noted that he warned Covax in January “not to put all its eggs in one basket,” and that it should diversify its risk. “They said no, we know Serum Institute, and they’re reliable,” he added.
Serum Institute of India
The Serum Institute of India is the leading producer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (“Covishield”) and the principal source for the COVAX facility worldwide; up to 700 million doses were expected for 2021.
After initial deliveries to North Africa, West Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East in March and April 2021, Indian officials have begun to limit “Covishield” exports until the end of 2021. This is due to the soaring case numbers in India, which forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to impose a freeze on shipments in March as virus cases surged. Based on the high infection rates in India, COVAX is now projected to only deliver 145 million doses instead of 240 million by May 2021.
COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) is a worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for wealthy and emerging countries, directed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization (WHO).
It is one of three pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which was launched in April 2020 by the WHO, European Commission and France.
The initiative heavily depends on the Serum Institute of India for vaccine supplies. The latest decision to extend its vaccine exports to the end of 2021 will significantly hurt countries dependent on the COVAX to launch their COVID-19 campaigns.
Masiyiwa’s role in Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out
Masiyiwa is a Zimbabwean businessman and philanthropist who plays a critical role in COVID-19 vaccine roll-outs in Africa. When the pandemic hit the global economy last year, many countries (mainly Western nations) restricted the export of COVID-19 vaccines to developing nations, many of which were in Africa. This caused the private sector to establish a body called the Africa Medical Supply Platform (AMSP).
The AMSP is led by Masiyiwa, who is an African Union special envoy, and is supported by private philanthropic partners. It has become a marketplace for linking African governments with manufacturers of COVID-19 commodities, including PPEs, therapeutics, diagnostics, cold chain and vaccines. The initiative allows governments on the continent to pre-order COVID-19 vaccines.