BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra recently claimed that India's COVID-19 vaccine exports were a "liability and compulsion" and that India needed to export vaccines to countries that provided raw materials.
In a recent tweet, Union Minister for Housing & Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri posted a video of Sambit Patra, justifying the export of COVID-19 vaccines to other countries. Patra's explanation came after a barrage of criticism and questions raised by Indians over the global goodwill initiative 'Vaccine Maitri' and export of vaccines at the cost of the health of Indian citizens.
In this video, he made two claims:
1. More than five crore vaccines were exported because the central government had no other option. It was a "liability and compulsion", part of the commercial obligations and was not given as aid or grant
2. India needed to export vaccines to countries that gave us raw materials.
Patra also wrote a column in The Indian Express on why vaccine exports helped the country and that it was good diplomacy and economics. He further tweeted that the "bulk of the exports were because of "contractual obligations" rather than "goodwill gestures".
While Vaccine Maitri was touted as a humanitarian initiative by India to provide COVID-19 vaccines to countries across the world, Patra said the "bulk of the exports were because of contractual obligations rather than goodwill gestures". This is also supported by a blog piece that was tweeted by the Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan which says, "Despite shortage of vaccine in India, our government had the magnanimity to export 66 million dosage abroad on humanitarian grounds."
But here's proof that the BJP spokesperson's first claim is false.
As of May 19, 2021, India had exported more than 66 million doses (6.6 crore) of COVID-19 vaccines to 95 countries worldwide, according to the Ministry of External Affairs. Of these, 10 million were grants or aid from the government to its neighbours: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Maldives and Seychelles. India has also exported its vaccines to faraway countries like Trinidad & Tobago, Dominica and Barbados in the Caribbeans to Belize and Guatemala in Central America and Albania in the Balkans in the form of aid. Around two lakh vaccines were given to India's United Nations Peacekeeping Force.
Around 20 million vaccine doses were sent to World Health Organization's COVAX facility which is co-led by GAVI, CEPI and UNICEF. Countries such as Sudan, Yemen, Zambia, Syria among many others have benefited through this facility.
The rest of the 36 million doses, which is around 55% of the total vaccines exported, were commercial exports sent to countries such as Canada, UK, Kuwait, UAE, South Africa, Iran and even Palestine among others.
FactChecker tried contacting Patra for clarification on his claims. We haven't received a response yet and, if and when we do, the story will be updated.
"The government needs to clarify if they were providing vaccines in the name of Vaccine Maitri or if they were fulfilling their liability. I would not use the word liability (like Patra did), these were international commitments." Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, epidemiologist, public policy and health systems expert, told FactChecker.
The second claim Patra made is also false because the United States of America is the largest provider of raw materials to India but the government has not exported any vaccines to the US.
"The argument that India needed to export vaccines to countries that gave us raw materials is wrong," said R Ramakumar, professor of School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. "India had three sets of commitments abroad: one, to GAVI; two, via vaccine maitri to other countries as decided by the MEA; and three, SII's commercial commitments to AstraZeneca. None of these were related to raw material supply," he added.
India's Vaccine Diplomacy timeline
On June 4, 2020, Indian vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India (SII) entered into a licensing agreement with AstraZeneca to supply one billion doses for low- and middle-income countries, with a commitment to provide 400 million before the end of 2020. Simultaneously, indigenous vaccines were also being developed.
On September 26, 2020, at the 75th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session, PM Modi said, "India's vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting the COVID crisis." India then, was reeling under the first wave of COVID-19 with more than 88,000 new daily cases.
In the following months, countries such as the United States (US), Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) purchased millions of vaccine doses from multiple companies for their citizens. Canada and the UK procured enough supplies to give each person at least four doses. The European Union and US ordered the highest total number of vaccine doses, at 1.6 billion and 1.2 billion, respectively.
On January 16, 2021, India launched its vaccination program with SII's Covishield and Bharat Biotech's indigenously developed Covaxin. The government set a target of vaccinating 300 million healthcare and frontline workers, and those above the age of 45 till August.
On January 19, 2021, the Modi government announced a vaccine diplomacy called Vaccine Maitri to provide COVID-19 vaccines across the world. Of the 66 million vaccines exported, 84% were SII's commercial pacts and commitment to the COVAX facility. But the government took credit over every commercial deal via announcing each shipment deal via Twitter. Find it here , here and here.
On January 28, 2021, while speaking at the World Economic Forum PM Modi said India had not only defeated COVID-19 but it had also built adequate infrastructure to handle the crisis.
Further, in March, India's UN Representative K Nagaraj Naidu told the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that India has supplied more COVID-19 vaccines globally than vaccinated its own people. During this time India reported over 62,000 new COVID-19 cases daily.
By April 6, when India was reeling under the COVID-19 second wave and reporting over one lakh cases daily, only 2% of the population had been fully vaccinated. By now multiple vaccinations in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh remained shut while other states reported shortages of vaccines.
To counter these claims, the Union Health Minister took to Twitter to "put an end to the fear mongering" and further claimed that there was no shortage of vaccines in the country.
During mid-April, while India was still exporting vaccines abroad, vaccinations per day showed a downward trend. By this time COVID-19 cases in India had soared to over 2.5 lakh a day.
India's last shipment was to Paraguay on April 22.
As of May 3, the Indian government had ordered only 260 million doses from SII and 80 million from Bharat Biotech.
On May 18, India reported more than 4,500 COVID-19 deaths, the highest daily death toll till date.
As of May 19, India had administered a total 18.7 crore doses to its citizens. However, only 4.11 crore are fully vaccinated while 14.56 crore have only received the first dose, as per the government's Co-Win dashboard.
While India has fully vaccinated only 3% of its population, the US and UK have vaccinated 37.9% and 30.8%, respectively.
ExpertSpeak: What were the missteps?
In a press release on January 19, 2021, the MEA said that they will ensure that "domestic manufacturers will have adequate stocks to meet domestic requirements while supplying abroad." However, by March 17, 2021, India had exported over five crore vaccine doses, more than it had administered within the country, according to a Rajya Sabha response. India had administered only around 1.34 crore doses between March 13 and March 19, 2021. By this time COVID-19 cases had started to rise again with India reporting more than 35,000 cases on March 17, 2021.
The majority of shipments were exported during March and April when cases were steadily rising. India's last shipment was to Paraguay on April 22, 2021. By then India was reporting over three lakh cases and more than 2,000 deaths per day.
"The first problem in the government's policy was that it did not advance order vaccines in time," said Ramakumar of TISS, Mumbai.
"The first purchase order was placed with SII only in January 2021. The government had a very clear idea of how much the SII had committed to outside India. These commitments of SII were non-negotiable, and some of them were also part of the GoI's 'Vaccine Maitri' programme. The question is: given that you knew how much India wanted for domestic needs, and given that you knew how much SII was committed to outside, what did you do to expand capacities of production in India. Nothing," added Ramakumar.
Similarly, Dr Lahariya also told FactChecker, "The main problem here is that the export of vaccines was not well planned. We relied only on two companies for the vaccine. For policy and planning the government should be held responsible. Manufacturers can sell vaccines to whomever they wish to. It is appropriate for a manufacturer to utilise the stocks available. It was clear that we needed 600 million shots but the government only ordered 100 million. This was wrong planning."
Even if the 66 million doses were not exported, India, being the second most populous country in the world, would still fall short of vaccines. But the government exported vaccines which could have been used for an entire month domestically.
"Given that India knew its demand in advance as well as SII's commercial commitments abroad, it should have invested heavily in domestic capacity expansion in 2020 itself. That is a signal failure. Every other country, like the US, UK and Germany, invested huge amounts in vaccine companies for capacity expansion and research and development. India didn't," said the TISS professor.
When asked about the way forward for India's vaccine diplomacy, Dr Lahariya said coordination with vaccine manufacturers for securing the supply and anticipating and planning different scenarios in future is necessary.
Ramakumar concluded with the following suggestions:
- The government should retreat from the commercialisation of vaccine policy.
- It should consider compulsory licensing and mass production of vaccines.
- It should also procure the vaccines directly from manufacturers and provide these free of cost to states.
- A transparent and socially desirable formula should be used to distribute vaccines to states.