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India is giving away millions of coronavirus vaccine doses as a tool of diplomacy

A policeman watches as an aircraft from India carrying the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine made by India’s Serum Institute, arrives at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu on Thursday. (Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — India started vaccinating its own population against the coronavirus only a few days ago, but it is already using its manufacturing heft to generate goodwill with its neighbors.

India’s government has made the calculation that it has enough vaccine doses to share. The result is a form of vaccine diplomacy that appears to be unlike any other in the world.

Since Wednesday, the Indian government has sent free doses to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives — more than 3.2 million in total. Donations to Mauritius, Myanmar and Seychelles are set to follow. Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are next on the list.

The shipments reflect one of India’s unique strengths: It is home to a robust vaccine industry, including Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers.

Early in the pandemic, Serum Institute formed a partnership to produce the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. By this year, it had already stockpiled 80 million doses. Some of that production will be delivered this month to the ­Covax initiative backed by the World Health Organization to distribute vaccines to poorer countries.

On Thursday, a fire broke out at a building under construction at Serum Institute’s headquarters in which five people died, New Delhi Television reported. Serum Institute said the blaze would not impact its production of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

In the race to combat the pandemic, several countries are using vaccine production as a route to enhance their global influence. But the Indian government seems to be the first to deliver multiple gifts to neighboring countries.

China has made a concerted push to sell its vaccines to countries around the globe for months but only recently announced donations to Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines. It is not clear if the free vaccines have been shipped.

On Thursday, Pakistan’s foreign minister had a call with his Chinese counterpart and announced that China would donate 500,000 vaccine doses by Jan. 31.

India’s diplomatic initiative has its own hashtag — #VaccineMaitri, or vaccine friendship — and received a high-profile plug from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India is “deeply honoured to be a long-trusted partner in meeting the healthcare needs of the global community,” he wrote on Twitter.

The push comes at a time when the virus is in retreat in India. The country is a distant second to the United States in terms of coronavirus cases, with about 10.6 million. Daily cases have dropped significantly since last fall.

India launched its nationwide vaccination drive, one of the world’s largest, on Jan. 16. The country is aiming to vaccinate 300 million people by the summer, starting with 10 million health-care personnel. Regulators fast-tracked the approval of two vaccines — the AstraZeneca vaccine and, more controversially, a vaccine called Covaxin developed in India that does not yet have efficacy data.

So far India is providing the AstraZeneca vaccine to its neighbors. Some analysts questioned whether the donations would have a lasting impact on existing sources of tension, such as a boundary dispute with Nepal.

“You have neighbors who resent India’s overweening ways as it is,” said Manoj Joshi, a ­foreign policy analyst and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “I don’t think they’re going to be so terribly grateful that they forget all that.”

Conspicuously absent from the list of countries receiving free vaccine doses is Pakistan, India’s rival and neighbor to the west. The relationship between the two countries hit a nadir in 2019 when they engaged in their first aerial dogfight in nearly 50 years following a terrorist attack in Kashmir.

Pakistan recently approved the AstraZeneca vaccine. It has not approached India about a potential shipment, said two Indian officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” one of the officials said.

A spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry referred queries to the Health Ministry, which did not respond.

India is monitoring its vaccine supply on a weekly basis to make sure it can meet both domestic needs and demands from other countries, one of the Indian officials said. Commercial exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine — including to Brazil and Morocco — will begin within days.

Countries that received the free vaccine doses this week expressed their thanks. On Wednesday, an Indian military transport plane landed at the only international airport in Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation wedged between India and China. It carried 150,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, enough to vaccinate more than one-tenth of the total population targeted for immunization.

Lotay Tshering, Bhutan’s prime minister, said in a statement that the Bhutanese people were “immensely grateful” for the doses. “It is of unimaginable value when precious commodities are shared even before meeting your own needs.”

Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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