Exclusive-India's federal government won't import vaccines, leaving it to states -sources

FILE PHOTO: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai

By Aftab Ahmed and Neha Arora

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India's government has decided to leave the import of COVID-19 vaccines to state authorities and companies, two government officials told Reuters, a decision that may slow acquisitions of shots as a second wave of the pandemic rips through the country.

They said Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government would instead aim to support domestic vaccine makers by guaranteeing purchases from them. The government this month paid Indian producers in advance, for the first time, for vaccine doses.

Under fire for his uneven handling of the world's worst COVID-19 surge, Modi has opened vaccinations for all adults from next month but supplies are already running short.

After cases began soaring this month, Modi's government urged Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to seek permission to sell their shots in India, and he relaxed rules for them.

But the sources said New Delhi was now leaving it to India's states and firms to sign deals with foreign drugmakers while it buys half the output of Indian producers - the Serum Institute, now manufacturing the Anglo-British AstraZeneca vaccine, and Bharat Biotech, the maker of a home-grown shot.

India's new coronavirus caseload hit a record daily peak for a fifth day on Monday as countries including Britain, Germany and the United States pledged to send urgent medical aid to help tackle the crisis overwhelming its hospitals.'

"The situation is desperate," one of the government officials told Reuters. He added that India would allow import of vaccines by local partners of drug companies but the federal government "won’t buy".

The second government official said: "I don't think the government will be buying foreign vaccines."

Both officials have direct knowledge of the matter but declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The ministries of external affairs, health and commerce did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The worst-hit state, Maharashtra, has said it will float a global tender to import vaccines. It is the most affluent state in India but many poorer ones may fall behind without financial support from the federal government to buy doses from abroad.

Health economist Rijo M John, guest professor at the Indian Institute of Management in the city of Kozhikode, criticised the Modi government's approach on vaccine procurement.

"Vaccines should be bought, imported by the centre and given to the people for free," he told Reuters.

"If left to states, some of them may not be able to afford it and consequently may have to charge (the cost of vaccines) to the people, many of whom would not be able to afford it."

Pfizer has said it is talking to Modi's government about supplying vaccines. J&J has sought approval to conduct a small local trial but made no plans as yet to sell its vaccine in India. Moderna has not commented.

India has administered nearly 140 million doses to its frontline workers and those aged above 45 years. About 118 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which is only about a tenth of the 1.35 billion population.

(Reporting by Aftab Ahmed and Neha Arora with additional reporting by Rupam JainEditing by Krishna N. Das and Mark Heinrich)