As of Wednesday, the Indian government has sent free vaccines to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives – a total of more than 3.2 million doses. Donations to Mauritius, Myanmar and the Seychelles are forthcoming. Next on the list are Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
The shipments reflect one of India’s unique strengths: It is home to a stable vaccine industry, including the Serum Institute in India, one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers.
At the start of the pandemic, the Serum Institute established a partnership to produce the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. As of this year, the company has already accumulated 80 million doses. Some of this production will be delivered this month to the Covax initiative, supported by the World Health Organization for the distribution of vaccines in poorer countries.
In the race to combat the pandemic, several countries are using vaccine production as a way to increase their global influence. But the Indian government seems to be the first to deliver many gifts to neighboring countries.
China has agreed to sell its vaccines to countries around the world for months, but only recently announced donations to Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines. It is unclear whether the free vaccines have been sent.
On Thursday, Pakistan̵
The Indian diplomatic initiative has its own hashtag – #VaccineMaitri or friendship vaccine – and received a high-profile plug from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “It is a deep honor for India to be a trusted partner in meeting the health needs of the global community,” he wrote on Twitter.
The push comes at a time when the virus is retreating to India. The country ranks second in the United States in coronavirus cases, with a total of about 10.6 million. Daily cases have decreased significantly since last fall.
For now, India is providing the AstraZeneca vaccine to its neighbors. Some analysts have questioned whether donations will have a lasting impact on existing sources of tension, such as the border dispute with Nepal.
“You have neighbors who are outraged by India’s prevailing ways,” said Manoj Joshi, a foreign policy analyst and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “I don’t think they’ll be so terribly grateful they’ll forget all this.”
Significantly absent from the list of countries receiving free vaccines is Pakistan, India’s rival and neighbor to the West. Relations between the two countries recently reached a peak in 2019, when they took part in their first air battle in nearly 50 years since the terrorist attack in Kashmir.
Pakistan recently approved the AstraZeneca vaccine. They have not contacted India for a potential shipment, said two Indian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter. “We will cross this bridge when we get to it,” said one official.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s foreign ministry made inquiries to the health ministry, which did not respond.
India monitors vaccine supplies on a weekly basis to make sure it can meet both domestic needs and the demands of other countries, said one Indian official. Commercial exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine – including to Brazil and Morocco – will begin within days.
The countries that received the free vaccines this week expressed their gratitude. On Wednesday, an Indian military transport plane landed at the only international airport in Bhutan, a small Himalayan country sandwiched between India and China. He has transported 150,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, enough to vaccinate more than a tenth of the total population targeting immunization.
Lotay Tshering, Bhutan’s prime minister, said in a statement that the people of Bhutan were “extremely grateful” for the vaccines. “Unimaginable value is when precious goods are shared even before you meet your own needs.”
Shaiq Hussain of Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.