US Vaccine Nationalism and India’s Vaccine Diplomacy – Risking lives versus Saving lives

| Chandrashekar TS
  • The US that positions itself as the policeman of the world, has restricted even the export of key raw materials for the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccine to India, let alone dispatching vaccines to needy countries.
  • The supplies of raw materials, which is in high demand globally and sought after by major Indian manufacturers are being forced by the Biden government to provide it only for domestic manufacturers in the US.
  • Until recently India has administered more than 13.5 Crore COVID-19 vaccine shots to people across the country. At the same time, it had shipped over million doses to more than 80 nations
  • Some analysts say most developing countries wouldn’t have received vaccine shots if India hadn’t supplied them.
  • Timely and equitable access to pandemic countermeasures, including vaccines is the need of the hour.
  • The US which prides in ‘America First’ and indulges in vaccine nationalism has put the recovery from the pandemic in jeopardy. Hence, India is the only nation which can take the lead in fighting the pandemic.

Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite several issues the world saw economic development and growth along with individual success. However, the Chinese Virus made lockdowns inevitable, economies were shattered, families and nations became inward, millions migrated back to their villages. Millions are dead and many still continue to suffer. Billions have been directly affected economically, socially, politically and emotionally. Rich countries have stockpiled medicines and vaccine nationalism is at the peak while for other nations like China it is diplomacy of domination and show of clout. Poor and developing countries for no mistake of theirs are forced to receive assistance and medicines from others.

In such a scenario, a contrasting approach to world welfare has emerged. While countries like the US have indulged in vaccine nationalism and refused medicines and raw materials for vaccine production in order to cater to its own population first, a developing country like India has shown the world that judicious vaccine diplomacy can save millions of lives the world over. 

While India true to its belief in the age-old ethos of “Vasudhiva Kutumbakam” (World is one Family) has provided vaccines to more than 80 countries, US that positions itself as the policeman of the world, has restricted even the export of key raw materials for the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccine to India, let alone dispatching vaccine to needy countries.

What has the US restricted?

At a time the pandemic is raging across the world, the US has stopped supplies of raw materials to India to manufacture vaccines for COVID 19. These raw materials include nucleic acids, amino acid phenols, acyclic amides, lecithins, sterols, syringes,  filters, bags and adjuvants. Large, sterile plastic bags are used to grow vaccine cells. An adjuvant is a substance that is used to increase the efficacy of a vaccine and helps the immune system generate antibodies and more.

The supplies of raw materials, which is in high demand globally and sought after by major Indian manufacturers are being forced by the Biden government to provide it only for domestic manufacturers in the US. India’s Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu has been taking up the matter with the Biden administration.

Though millions of doses of COVAX vaccine has already been delivered to many countries, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said there was still “a serious challenge on vaccine equity and availability. The vast majority of vaccine doses administered so far have been confined to “a few wealthy countries” or those producing the shots cleared for distribution. The race is on to get vaccines to those places and groups where they can have the greatest impact.”  

How did this situation emerge?

COVID-19 and the looming debt crisis showed that in 2019, 25 mostly poverty-stricken countries spent a higher proportion of government expenditures on debt services than they did on education, health and social protection combined. The heads of five UN organizations have called for maritime and air transport workers to be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination, given their key role in supporting global trade and mobility, which is essential for a sustainable socio-economic recovery.

The world is facing numerous challenges and there is talk of Wave 4 of COVID19 after Wave 1, Wave 2 and Wave 3! How can poor and developing countries who fight for bread and butter, who are suffering from civil wars, are victims of  ISIS, Al Qaeda or Taliban manage to immunize their people when countries like the US indulge in vaccine nationalism?

The Way out!

Global COVAX Facility, the only global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher and lower income countries. The COVAX scheme is to get 2 Billion vaccine doses into the arms of around a quarter of the population of poorer countries by the end of 2021. When will the remaining 4 Billion get? 

For example early on in the pandemic, UNICEF had built up a stockpile of half a billion syringes in warehouses outside the countries producing them. Its foresight paid off: countries put export controls on syringes, prices spiked, and supplies were limited. Getting doses into people’s arms requires a complex global supply chain. From the ingredients needed to produce the vaccine, to the glass and plastic stoppers and tubes, to the syringes. Because of this, export bans or controls on any of these products can cause major disruptions to vaccine rollouts. In a civil War or in a unrest country getting vaccines to those who need them is not easy.

Importantly more funding is needed to help rollout in the poorest countries. An additional $2 billion is needed to help the poorest 92 countries to pay for essentials such as fridges, health worker training, expenses for vaccinators, and fuel for the refrigerated delivery trucks, and is calling on donors to make $510m of this available immediately as part of a humanitarian appeal to address urgent needs. Richer countries should share excess doses. Despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccination saves lives, vaccine hesitancy, which exists in every country, is still a problem that needs to be constantly addressed.

India’s Responsibility

India under the leadership of PM Narendra Modi immediately announced the launching of “Vaccine Maitri” or vaccine friendship initiative days after India began its nationwide vaccination campaign on January 16. India has approved two vaccines: one developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and made by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), and another developed by the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech. Until recently India has administered more than 13.5 Crore COVID-19 vaccine shots to people across the country. At the same time, it had shipped over million doses to more than 80 nations, delivered either under the World Health Organization-backed COVAX mechanism or as part of commercial deals.

The initiative involves India supplying vaccines not just to its South Asian neighbors, but also to nations of the global south, such as Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Of the countries that received India-made vaccines, at least 37 have got them for free, 17 through COVAX, under the aegis of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI). And an estimated 34 million doses have so far been sent as part of commercial deals, according to government data.

Some analysts say most developing countries wouldn’t have received vaccine shots if India hadn’t supplied them. India’s Foreign Minister Subramanian Jaishankar informed parliament that the domestic requirement of the vaccines is being monitored continuously even as India sends vaccines to friendly nations across the globe.

US Hampering World efforts

In the recently concluded the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders’ meeting, which involved the leaders of the US, India, Japan and Australia, it was decided that these four nations would jointly supply at least 1 billion vaccine doses to countries in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Though more than 25 leaders from every region, including the G7 intergovernmental group of leading countries and G20 industrialized nations, have united the challenge lies more. However, restrictions on Vaccine raw materials in India can put a break not only for India’s production of Vaccine to the world but also to India. Poor vulnerable developing countries will be severely  affected.

COVID19 has to be wiped out just as plague and smallpox was eradicated. Herd Immunity the need of the hour. India wants vaccines for everybody irrespective of race, color, language, religion or gender. Despite the challenges it has faced domestically, it has gone a step ahead to help others. But what is needed now is a global movement which would help build resilience to pandemics and other global health emergencies. Whether India will emerge as the leader of the developing small, medium and other vulnerable countries has to be seen.

Timely and equitable access to pandemic countermeasures, including vaccines is the need of the hour. Support for sustainable funding and capacity for prevention, detection, and responses to outbreaks and promotion of mutual trust is the most important to fight similar pandemics in the future too.

The US which prides in ‘America First’ and indulges in vaccine nationalism has put the recovery from the pandemic in jeopardy. Hence, India is the only nation which can take the lead in this. As the ‘Pharmacy of the World’ and given its track record, it is only India which can lead the world out of the pandemic. It is for WHO and the like minded countries who have to come together and trust India’s leadership in order to fight the pandemic.

(The opinion expressed are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of SamvadaWorld)

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