NEW DELHI—India has authorized the Covid-19 vaccine from the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca PLC, kick-starting global use of an inoculation that is expected to be embraced by developing countries given its lower price and ease of transport compared with other front-runners.
India’s information and broadcasting minister, Prakash Javadekar, said Saturday that the vaccine, which was developed in the U.K., has received permission for emergency usage.
“Last year began with corona. This year has begun with a vaccine,” he said at a news briefing in New Delhi on Saturday.
The U.K. authorized the vaccine earlier this week, and India is one of the first countries to follow suit.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine could be a good fit for India and other developing countries thanks to its price, convenience and expected global reach. AstraZeneca has promised to make as many as three billion doses available in 2021—more than any other Covid-19 vaccine maker—and at a cheaper price.
The U.K. company says it won’t profit from the shot during the pandemic, or ever in the case of poorer countries.
The vaccine can be transported and stored for months with normal refrigeration, making it easier to distribute in places where people and health-care networks are overstretched and underfunded. Many of the other leading Western vaccines require ultracold temperatures for all but a few days or weeks.
India has already been building its vaccine delivery network and over the weekend did a dry run in some states to test it. Its first wave of vaccinations will piggyback on its nationwide network for vaccinating children, which is one of the largest in the world. That network reaches all across the South Asian nation but doesn’t have readily available the freezers or transport equipment needed to handle the vaccines that require extremely cold temperatures.
In India, AstraZeneca has a manufacturing and distribution agreement with the Serum Institute of India to provide more than one billion doses to developing countries. The institute is already the world’s largest vaccine maker by volume, making more than a billion doses a year for everything from polio to measles, mostly for export to emerging markets.
Confident the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine would get approval, SII has been making and stockpiling it and already has close to 50 million doses ready. It hasn’t said how much of that would be for India, but in the past it said it expected that eventually around half of its production would be for domestic use.
While India’s early approval and the Serum Institute’s stockpile will speed up the process, a nationwide rollout will still take time. Richer, less populated countries are already struggling with the logistics. India plans to deliver more than 300 million doses in the next six months, to start to make a dent in its population of more than 1.3 billion people.
The vaccine takes two shots, and British health officials recommend a delay of as long as three months between each dose. Similar guidance applies to the vaccines developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE that the U.K. authorized earlier in December. The Pfizer-BioNTech shot and one developed by Moderna Inc. have also been cleared in the U.S.
India is in need of an affordable, easy-to-distribute vaccine, given that more than 10 million Indians have been confirmed to have been infected, second only to the U.S. While its daily infection rate has plunged in the past few months, it is still getting about 20,000 new infections and more than 200 deaths each day.
Meanwhile in the six months through September, India’s gross domestic product contracted more than 15% from a year earlier. The government wants a vaccine to end fear of the coronavirus and allow the economy to rebound to create more and better jobs for its young population.
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