Rising demand for supplies from a key Indian manufacturer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is hampering its ability to send doses to the UK, people familiar with the situation have told the Financial Times.
The latest development emerged as the UK government comes under growing pressure to explain a “significant” reduction in vaccine supplies which has delayed the rollout to people aged under 50 with no underlying health conditions.
People briefed on the situation suggested a key pinch point was supply that had been expected to arrive from the Serum Institute in India to boost the volumes already available. A total of 10m doses had been expected to enter the UK although there had been no timeframe specified for the shipments, they said. Of that, 5m doses were sent several weeks ago.
Robert Jenrick, UK housing secretary, refused on Thursday to give details about the delay other than to say the government only learnt there were going to be supply issues with the vaccine “in the last few days”.
“I don’t think it is right for me to say exactly what the issue is or with which manufacturer or in which factory — a number of global manufacturers are experiencing issues and we source vaccines from a number of manufacturers from all over the world,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
Discussing vaccine exports in the Indian parliament on Wednesday, foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar did not say they had been banned but said supply was “based on assessment of adequate availability at home”.
“This is continuously monitored and takes into account the requirements of our domestic vaccination programme as it unfolds in different phases,” he said.
Staff involved in the UK vaccination programme were told on Wednesday the fall in supply available from the week beginning March 29 meant the amount available for first doses would be “significantly constrained”. They were instructed by NHS leaders to freeze all further bookings for April, including for all under-50s — the next cohort due to be inoculated.
AstraZeneca issued a statement on Wednesday evening insisting its “domestic supply chain is not experiencing any disruption and there is no impact on our delivery schedule”. UK manufacturers are capable of supplying the entire 100m doses that AstraZeneca is contracted to provide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.
One person familiar with the situation rejected the suggestion that there had been a delay, saying the UK had not been given a precise timetable for delivery of the doses. The rising demand from the Indian government was affecting availability for exports, they said. The Serum Institute declined to comment.
The number of infections, and the rate of vaccinations, in the south Asian country has been picking up in recent weeks, prompting pressure from the government to to assess domestic demand and make shipments accordingly, the insiders said.
The rest of the doses would arrive in the UK very soon, they said, but noted the timing would depend on domestic requirements. Issues with supply from Serum were first reported by the Telegraph.
Jenrick said that any new manufacturing process would have “its ups and downs”, but argued the government was confident it would be able to meet its target of offering the vaccine to all those in its top nine priority groups by mid-April and all adults by the end of July.