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India may resume exports of Covishield vaccines by the year-end, said Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest supplier of vaccines.

The government banned covid vaccine exports in April amid the country’s devastating second wave. Covishield is a version of the covid vaccine co-developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca Plc.

In an interview, Poonawalla said India is nearing a level where sufficient stocks to sustain the nationwide vaccination drive is available.

SII is also “significantly" ramping up its capacities, he said.

“The export restrictions were there temporarily to take care of our nation. In the next month or two, we expect it will ease. Because if you look at how many vaccines we have delivered and others in India have delivered, we are coming close to a point where there is more than enough vaccine stock, especially with us scaling up even further for this year," Poonawalla said. “So, in the next two months, we do expect slow easement of exports. But you have to also check with the government; ultimately it is their decision, and we will go by what they see as appropriate," he added.

Hindustan Times reported earlier this week that the Joe Biden administration has asked India to relax export curbs on covid-19 vaccines.

India halted vaccine exports as the second wave of the pandemic sparked criticism of the Modi administration on the slow progress on vaccination. The government’s inability to place advance orders for vaccines is also expected to have contributed to the sluggish progress of vaccinations in the first few months of this year. However, in the past six months, India has administered 77 million doses, with the government setting an ambitious target of vaccinating 30% of the population by December-end. On Friday, India administered a record 20 million vaccines.

Poonawalla’s comments come at a time when global pressure is building on countries like India from the World Health Organization (WHO), among other global organizations, to ease curbs on vaccine exports. SII had received funding from the Gates Foundation and Geneva-based GAVI to manufacture and distribute up to billion doses of the Covishield vaccine and a second vaccine developed by US-based Novavax.

Poonawalla said with India now having four covid vaccine candidates—Covishield, Covaxin, Sputnik V and ZyCov-D—that have received approval , supply constraints should ease. SII alone is manufacturing 150 million doses per month, which is expected to rise to 200 million doses by October, he said.

A year ago, India was seen as the supplier of covid vaccines to the rest of the world, but with the ban on exports, China managed to supply most vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Data from Swiss analytical firm Airfinity showed Chinese vaccine makers are collectively expected to produce more than 1 billion doses in the next three months. According to Beijing-based Bridge Consulting, Chinese firms have exported more than 80 million doses to 60 countries so far, while India exported 60 million doses.

Meanwhile, SII announced on Friday a strategic alliance with Biocon Biologics Ltd (BBL) wherein the companies will collaborate for vaccine manufacturing, as well as distribution of vaccines and other monoclonal antibodies. As part of the partnership, BBLwill offer approximately 15% stake to SII’s unit at a post-money valuation of ~$4.9 billion. In return, it will get committed access to 100 million vaccine doses per annum for 15 years, primarily from SII’s upcoming vaccine facility in Pune. “Never has been a great time globally to leverage both our opportunities for research and manufacturing in biologics space," Poonawalla said.

BBL is also expected to handle the process of filling vials with SII produced vaccines and finishing the process of packaging for distribution.

Kiran Majumdar Shaw, chief executive of BBL, said manufacturing and distribution of vaccines for infectious diseases will complement the firm’s business. As part of the pact, BBL will offer about a 15% stake worth $700 million to Serum Institute Life Sciences, a unit of SII, at a post-money valuation of $4.9 billion.

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