The U.K. will receive its first tranche of 10 million Indian-made Oxford/AstraZeneca doses next week, according to U.K. officials, allowing Britain to speed ahead in vaccinations while less wealthy countries wait.
As of February 28, India, with a population of around 1.4 billion had vaccinated 14.3 million people. The U.K. meanwhile, had vaccinated 21 million of its citizens by the same date, within a population of around 70 million.
“The U.K. has ordered 100 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, of which 10 million doses will come from the Serum Institute of India,” a U.K. government spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.
The 10 million doses form part of the U.K.’s original 100 million dose agreement with AstraZeneca. The SII was inspected by the U.K.’s Medicines and Health products Regulatory Authority and batches will be tested before use in the U.K.
The spokesperson added: “The Serum Institute is one part of our supply chain for the AstraZeneca vaccine, which also includes production in parts of the EU as well as here in the U.K.”
The U.K. had sought assurances from SII that providing British doses wouldn’t come at the expense of manufacturing the vaccine for poorer countries, the spokesperson added.
However, the move comes amid a fierce debate about the help given to poorer countries to vaccinate their populations. Sandy Douglas, a researcher at the University of Oxford who worked on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, has called for the U.K. to send “small portions” of its doses overseas, arguing it would provide Britain with a soft-power boost and promote “stability in countries reeling from the pandemic.”
Last month, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused rich nations of securing vaccines at the expense of COVAX, a mechanism to provide vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. He argued that even though wealthy countries are sending money to COVAX, they’re now snatching up all the available doses, leaving few for countries less well off.
COVAX only began sending its first vaccines deliveries to Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire at the end of last week.
Meanwhile, both the U.K and EU now look poised to get Oxford/AstraZeneca from the Serum Institute of India (SII), which has been expected to be the main source of supply for less wealthy countries.
On Monday, Reuters reported that the European Medicines Agency is auditing the SII to possibly import drug substance from the producer. So far, only three plants in Belgium, the U.S. and the U.K. are allowed to make the substance for the EU’s Oxford/AstraZeneca doses.
It’s not clear yet whether the EU would actually receive doses from the SII. The Commission wouldn’t comment, and the EMA said it doesn’t comment on its inspections “until the publication of an assessment report.”
The SII agreed to produce up to 1 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine and was a major stop-off during British Trade Secretary Liz Truss’ recent visit to the country. Truss discussed the Indian doses due to be sent to Britain during her trip, according to people familiar with the matter. An official didn’t deny the discussions had taken place but said they weren’t substantial.
AstraZeneca declined to comment.