By Krishna N. Das
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Global vaccine-sharing network COVAX is still seeing strong demand for India-made doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot, one of its backers GAVI said, following comments from producer the Serum Institute of India (SII) that uptake had slowed sharply.
The SII, the world's biggest vaccine maker, told India's CNBC-TV18 this week it would temporarily halve the vaccine's production as it had no fresh orders from the Indian government and COVAX was taking fewer doses than the company could offer.
SII CEO Adar Poonawalla, whose company brands the shot Covishield, said COVAX was placing orders but at a "very slow" rate, adding that "the uptake will pick up in the next quarter". Covishield production is currently at 250 million doses a month.
The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) said COVAX had allocated 40 million Covishield doses to various countries after New Delhi last month let the SII resume such supplies for the first time since April. India imposed an export ban on COVID-19 vaccines in April to prioritise domestic supplies and deal with a surge in local infections.
GAVI, which co-leads COVAX with the World Health Organization, also said it had the option to buy vaccines keeping a "flexible approach as the pandemic and countries' needs continue to evolve".
"We are still experiencing robust country demand for SII-Covishield ..." a GAVI spokesperson said in an email.
"Covishield will continue to play an important role within COVAX’s diverse portfolio of vaccines ... to achieve higher coverage rates in lower-income countries."
Asked about the speed of vaccine orders and uptake, GAVI said the process takes time as doses need to be allocated to beneficiaries, plans put in place to administer them, approvals secured and shipment delivered.
"COVAX's goal is to protect populations as quickly as possible but every care must be taken to ensure recipient countries are able to deploy the doses we send them," GAVI said.
Although vaccine supplies started increasing to Africa, where just 7.5% of its more than 1 billion people are fully vaccinated, many African nations are finding they do not have the capacity to manage the shots.
Up to one million unused vaccine doses supplied via COVAX are estimated to have expired in Nigeria last month, underscoring the difficulty African countries have getting shots in arms, Reuters reported earlier this week.
The SII has a deal to supply up to 550 million Covishield doses to COVAX but has sent only about 37 million so far.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)