Update: On April 26th, the White House announced that it will share 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with other nations around the world after quality control inspections by the FDA.
This week, global health experts took to social media to ask the U.S. government why it hasn’t offered its stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines to India. There are currently tens of millions of unused AstraZeneca vaccine doses sitting in storage in the U.S., which has so far declined to share vaccines with other struggling countries. Meanwhile India, which has produced millions of vaccines for export to countries such as Brazil and Nigeria, is dealing with its biggest Covid-19 surge of the pandemic. The country recorded more than 346,786 new cases on Saturday, and more than 2,600 deaths.
“We are sitting on 35-40 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine Americans will never use,” Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, wrote on Twitter last week. “Can we please give or lend them to India? Like maybe now? It’ll help. A lot.”
Other experts echoed Jha’s plea. “We should be diverting vaccine stock to India now,” wrote Harvard Medical School Assistant Professor Adam Gaffney. The official Twitter account of the Wellcome Trust also retweeted Jha’s message.
Until recent weeks, India was exporting many of the vaccines made in the country to low-income nations. One of the biggest vaccine manufacturers in the world, the Serum Institute of India (SII), has been exclusively making Covidhield, a version of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. SII has donated 20 million doses of this vaccine to the World Health Organization to distribute to other countries.
But new events have led to the country not having enough vaccines to inoculate its own 1.4 billion residents. First, the SII said that the U.S. was hoarding raw materials that are essential to manufacturing vaccines. Second, the crushing second wave of Covid-19 cases across India has led to a demand for vaccines that far outweighs supply. Not only is the country in need of vaccines, but some states are running out of critical oxygen and medications as well.
The U.S. has been heavily criticized for its nationalist vaccine approach, declaring that it will only send vaccines to other countries when there are enough vaccines for every adult who wants one in America. However, the Administration stated last week that planned deliveries of both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines would be enough to meet this goal, and Johnson & Johnson is contracted to deliver a total of 100 million doses to the government.
Earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that the U.S. will probably not need its stockpiled doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not yet been granted Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA. Cases of blood clots in Europe that have been linked to the vaccine means it is even more likely that regulators will decline to authorize the new shot. So far, however, the Administration has only agreed to give away 4 million total doses of the vaccine to Mexico and Canada. The White House has also defended the ban on exporting raw materials to make Covid-19 vaccines to India.
This has left some critics fuming that unused vaccines are sitting in warehouses instead of helping get the global pandemic under control. Many point out that vaccination must be a global effort, or else new variants will continue to rise in other countries and spread around the world. This has already happened in India, which is struggling against the B1617 variant of the virus that has been shown to be 20% more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. The B1617 variant has also been reported in the United States as well as the U.K., Israel, Germany and other countries.
When asked about this policy, a Biden Administration spokesperson said there hadn’t been any updates in federal policy. A spokesperson from AstraZeneca said since the U.S. owns the vaccine doses, it is up to the government to decide if they should be donated.
The pressure on the Administration isn’t limited to public health experts, either. On Friday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also called on the Administration to release AstraZeneca doses internationally. “As the Covid pandemic inflicts a heavy toll on countries around the globe, the U.S. Chamber strongly encourages the administration to release the millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses in storage - as well as other life-saving support - for shipment to India, Brazil, and other nations hard-hit by the pandemic,” the group’s executive vice president Myron Brilliant said in a statement.