India started exporting coronavirus shots on Wednesday with a shipment to the neighbouring Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the foreign ministry said, as the so-called pharmacy of the world looks to bolster its vaccine diplomacy.
Many low and middle-income countries are relying on India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, for supplies to start Covid-19 immunisation programmes and bring an end to their outbreaks.
"First consignment takes off for Bhutan!" Foreign Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said on Twitter. "India begins supply of Covid vaccines to its neighbouring and key partner countries."
The ministry said on Tuesday "supplies under grant assistance" would be shipped to the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and the Seychelles, while Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Mauritius await regulatory clearances to receive the vaccines.
India authorised two vaccines this month for emergency use at home, one licensed from Oxford University and AstraZeneca and another developed at home by Bharat Biotech in partnership with the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research. Both are manufactured locally.
At least two other vaccines are expected to be authorised by India in the next few months.
India initially will only ship the AstraZeneca vaccine, made by the Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, which brands the shot as Covishield.
Bangladesh said it expected to receive a gift of two million doses of Covishield on Thursday. The country of more than 160 million has yet to start its vaccination programme and has ordered a further 30 million doses of the shot.
India, which has reported the highest number of coronavirus infections after the United States, has so far vaccinated more than 631,417 frontline workers.
The world's second-most populous country reported on Wednesday 13,823 new cases, taking the total to 10.9 million. The number of deaths from the disease rose by 162 to 152,718, data from the health ministry showed.
"The Pharmacy of the World will deliver to overcome the Covid challenge," Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said on Twitter, referring to exports.