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India’s Vaccine Export Ban Stalls Cambodia’s COVAX Shipments

A health worker holds up a vial of Covishield, AstraZeneca-Oxford's Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine, at the Ayeyarwady Covid Center in Yangon on January 27, 2021. (Photo by Sai Aung Main / AFP)
A health worker holds up a vial of Covishield, AstraZeneca-Oxford's Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine, at the Ayeyarwady Covid Center in Yangon on January 27, 2021. (Photo by Sai Aung Main / AFP)

Delivery of Covishield vaccines to Cambodia through the United Nation's COVAX mechanism will likely be delayed as India has barred exports to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases, said a UN spokesperson.

Cambodia has so far received 324,000 doses of the Covishield, which are India-made Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines. According to COVAX’s delivery schedule, Cambodia should receive 1.1 million doses at the end of May.

“The [rest of the] 1.1 million doses due to be received by Cambodia by the end of May through the COVAX Facility are likely to be delayed as a result of the supply constraints related to AstraZeneca/Serum Institute of India vaccines coming from India,” said Rudina Vojvoda, communications chief at UNICEF’s Cambodia office.

The United States announced earlier this week that it would donate millions of doses from its stockpiles to the COVAX mechanism, providing a stimulus to the global vaccination effort.

The COVAX Facility was created to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines to developing and least developed countries. It covers vaccines for 20 percent of the country’s population.

Developed nations and the EU have been widely criticized for ordering and hoarding vaccines beyond their needs. According to The One Campaign, an anti-poverty organization, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia Japan, and the European Union have one billion excess doses than needed to vaccinate their entire populations.

Experts estimate that hoarding of vaccines could result in severe delays in vaccinating the world's poorest nations – some estimates suggest vaccinations could take as long as the end of 2023. It risks prolonging the pandemic if there are deadlier and more infectious mutations of the virus.

India has exported 63 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to almost 100 nations. This was done through the COVAX Facility, commercial sales, and donations made to smaller South Asian, Caribbean, and African nations. With a surging outbreak that is registering more than 4,000 daily deaths, India has all but stopped its contributions to the COVAX facility to meet its domestic demand.

UNICEF’s Rudina Vojvoda said this has caused supply challenges for COVAX-facilitated vaccines to Cambodia and elsewhere.

“Globally, UNICEF and COVAX continue to be in close contact with India around restarting vaccine deliveries from Serum Institute of India (SII) as soon as possible,” Vojvoda said, referring to the AstraZeneca vaccine manufacturer in India.

Apart from Covishield, Cambodia has received around five million doses of Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, the latter recently approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization.

Prime Minister Hun Sen cited the global vaccine shortage to justify the heavy reliance on Chinese vaccines in comments he made on Thursday, adding that he requested four million doses from the United States.

This week, the US government said it would distribute some 80 million doses from its vaccine stockpiles through the COVAX Facility after it was criticized for storing millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not approved for emergency use in the country.

US President Joe Biden’s pledge is likely to thwart Russia’s and China’s vaccine diplomacy efforts, but made no mention of fellow Quad member India. “This will be more vaccines than any country has actually shared to date — five times more than any other country — more than Russia and China, which have donated 15 million doses,” he said from the White House on May 17.

Chad Roedemeier, a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the shipment of the US-donated vaccines would happen before the end of June.

“The United States will work with COVAX and other partners to ensure these vaccines are delivered in a way that is equitable and follows the science and public health data,” Roedemeier said. “The United States will not use its vaccines to secure favors from other countries.”

The COVAX Facility received a shot in the arm after the Sinopharm vaccines were approved by the WHO last week. The vaccine would bolster efforts to provide more access to vaccines for recipient countries, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom.

UNICEF’s Vojvoda said there was no indication that Sinopharm had been made part of COVAX’s vaccine portfolio as yet.

“We do not have any update at this time from COVAX whether Sinopharm will be part of COVAX distribution in the future or not,” she said.

As of Thursday, close to 2.2 million people in Cambodia had received at least one dose of the three vaccines offered to the country. Health officials have administered 1.13 million doses of Sinovac, 909,208 of Sinopharm, and 157,175 of Covishield.