India scraps local trials for COVID shots to fast-track imports as it battles second wave


A doctor inspects a patient suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) inside the classroom turned COVID-19 care facility on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, May 24, 2021. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India on Thursday scrapped local trials for "well-established" foreign coronavirus vaccines to fast-track imports as it battles a devastating second wave of the pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of people.

India recorded its highest COVID-19 death toll since the pandemic began last year in May, accounting for just over a third of the overall total.

India has been inoculating its people with the AstraZeneca vaccine produced locally at the Serum Institute, Covaxin made by local firm Bharat Biotech, and has begun rolling out Russia's Sputnik V.

But supplies are far short of the millions of doses the world's second-most populous country needs.

The government said it was in talks with Pfizer for "earliest possible" imports of its shots and that it had also had discussions with Johnson & Johnson and Moderna.

Last month, India pledged to fast-track approvals for foreign vaccines but its insistence on local trials was a key reason for stalled discussions with Pfizer.

"The provision has now been further amended to waive the trial requirement altogether for the well-established vaccines manufactured in other countries," the government said in a statement.

None of drugmakers has sent in applications for approval with India's drugs regulator, it said.

"We reiterate our request to all international vaccine makers to come and make in India – for India and for the world."

Just about 3% of the country's 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated, the lowest rate among the 10 countries with the most COVID-19 cases. Officials have said that 98% of the population remains susceptible to infection.

The country reported 211,298 new infections on Thursday, still the world's highest daily rise, but nearly half the daily infections it recorded earlier this month.

The overall case load is now at 27.37 million, while deaths stand at 315,235, according to health ministry data.

But experts believe that figure grossly underestimates the actual toll as only people who have tested positive are counted, whereas many victims were never tested.

Desperate Indian states are launching global tenders or seeking expressions of interest from firms including Pfizer and Moderna, but vaccine makers said they would only talk with the federal government.

The government said supplies were tight.

"The fact that global tenders have not given any results only reaffirms what we have been telling the states from day one: that vaccines are in short supply in the world and it is not easy to procure them at short notice," it said.

(Reporting by Neha Arora in New Delhi, Sachin Ravikumar and Anuron Kumar Mitra in Bengaluru; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie)

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