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World's Biggest Vaccine Producer Says It Won't Export Doses Until End Of 2021

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The world's largest vaccine producer is a company in India, which now says it won't be able to export any COVID-19 vaccines until the end of this year. Well, that news from the Serum Institute of India has plenty of other countries furious, countries that had already placed orders. NPR's Lauren Frayer toured the company's factory earlier this year. She joins us now from Mumbai to explain the situation. And Lauren, tell us a little bit more about what exactly the Serum Institute is saying.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: So the Serum Institute manufactures the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. And this is the vaccine that's used in much of the developing world because it doesn't require ultra-cold refrigeration. And Serum has said in a sort of rambling, quite defensive statement last night that it hopes to start delivering to COVAX and other countries by the end of this year.

KELLY: I'll leap in to clarify. COVAX, this is the World Health Organization, the WHO's, grand plan to get vaccines to lower-income countries.

FRAYER: That's right, and the Serum Institute was supposed to be the biggest supplier for that. COVAX and many other countries have ordered vaccines from Serum, in some cases paid for them, but the deliveries have been delayed. And, you know, that includes countries like Nepal, in the middle of its worst COVID wave. Its health system is collapsing. It had one initial batch of vaccines from Serum. Now, it can't get more. Also, African countries that are looking at this horrible COVID wave in South Asia want to use this time to vaccinate their domestic populations in case it, you know, jumps there, and they can't get doses. The African Union's special envoy for vaccines told the Financial Times he's beyond anger at the Serum Institute right now.

KELLY: Well, and how did we get here? How did the world's biggest vaccine producer end up running out of vaccines?

FRAYER: So Serum is a small family business. It specializes in childhood immunizations, things like measles, tetanus. And the company actually says two-thirds of the world's children get their vaccines. And their thing is really mass producing these vaccines at low profit margins, which was great. That's what the world needed when the pandemic began.

But Serum has had this fall from grace that has a lot to do with India's miscalculations. India last year didn't get COVID as bad as the U.S. and Europe did, and so it didn't order enough vaccines for the domestic population. It did start vaccinating people here in January, but, you know, I went to vaccine centers then, and they were empty. You know, people didn't see the urgency.

The irony is that India is in the world's biggest COVID wave now, and it desperately needs those vaccines. And it started importing Russia's Sputnik vaccine to India. And some of the countries like Nepal or Bangladesh that have counted on the Serum Institute now may turn to China's vaccines if they can get those quicker.

KELLY: You know, I'm not sure I knew that the company that is the world's biggest vaccine producer was in India and that the rest of the world was so reliant on it.

FRAYER: Yeah. I mean, it was a case of putting all your eggs in one basket is what we know in hindsight now. But I toured the Serum Institute's factory back in March, and this was when the company was being celebrated. Indians were really proud. The Serum Institute said it was ramping up production to 100 million doses per month, but they never achieved that. They got stuck around 60 or 70 million a month.

And Indians, I should say, are angry, too because when COVID flared here and these shortages became clear, the Serum CEO hopped a private jet out of India to the U.K. And so the optics are really bad. You know, Indians are dying by the thousands every day. Actually today, the government confirmed the deadliest 24 hours here since the pandemic began. And, you know, the CEO of their vaccine supplier has fled the country.

KELLY: Well, NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai, thank you for your reporting.

FRAYER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.