Exclusive-India's most populous state to spend up to $1.36 billion on COVID shots amid shortage


A man speaks on the phone as a doctor tries to revive his wife inside an emergency ward of a government-run hospital, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Bijnor district, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India's most populous state will spend up to $1.36 billion to buy COVID-19 shots and held early talks this week with companies such as Pfizer and the local partner of the maker of Russia's Sputnik V, a state official said on Thursday.

The move by Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil, comes as many Indian states curtail vaccinations due to severe shortages amid a record surge in coronavirus infections, with India recording more than 4,000 deaths for a second straight day as its health system fails to cope.

Uttar Pradesh has also held pre-bid talks with Indian vaccine companies the Serum Institute of India (SII) - licensed to make the AstraZeneca and Novavax shots - Bharat Biotech and Cadila Healthcare as part of a global tender to buy 40 million doses over the next few months, state spokesman Navneet Sehgal told Reuters.

He said Johnson & Johnson could also confirm their participation in the tender by late Thursday via email. Sputnik V's local distributor, Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, has also held talks.

"Money is not an issue, we have a huge budget," said Sehgal, a senior bureaucrat in the state of 240 million people. "We will spend up to 100 billion rupees ($1.36 billion)."

He said funds would have to be diverted from other areas to buy the vaccines.

Dr. Reddy's and Bharat Biotech declined to comment. Pfizer, J&J, SII and Cadila did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Uttar Pradesh has also separately ordered 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and Bharat Biotech's Covaxin.

"WHERE IS 'INDIA'?"

Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened vaccinations to all adults from May 1, doubling the number of people eligible to an estimated 800 million, though domestic production will stay largely flat at about 80 million a month until July.

The result is that several states now plan to launch global supply tenders individually. Reuters earlier reported that the federal government would not import vaccines itself.

"Indian states left to compete/fight with each other in international market," Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Twitter.

"Where is 'India'? Portrays such a bad image of India. India, as one country, should procure vaccines on behalf of all Indian states."

Modi's office and the health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

COVID-19 immunisations in the country in the past week have hit levels last seen in mid-March when India did fewer than 2 million doses a day and vaccinations were limited to only health and front-line workers.

The country has administered nearly 179 million doses, the most after China and the United States, but has given the required two doses to only 3% of its 1.35 billion people.

Vinod Kumar Paul, a top government official leading India's response to the pandemic, told a news briefing vaccine supplies would improve significantly from August. He said more than 2 billion locally made doses may be available between August and December.

That includes 750 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and 200 million of Novavax, both via SII. Others include 156 million doses of Sputnik V and shots developed by Indian companies such as Biological E.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Aishwarya Nair, Tanvi Mehta, Shilpa Jamkhandikar, Anuron Kumar Mitra and Sumit Khanna; Editing by Nick Macfie and Catherine Evans)

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