Vaccine diplomacy returns

| Updated on September 27, 2021

India can now spare 5 per cent of its supplies to countries in Africa which are in dire need of vaccines   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

It is just as well that India is once again set to produce vaccines for the rest of the world

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the US, India once again reaffirmed its role as a pre-eminent player on the global vaccine stage. Vaccine diplomacy was the recurrent theme at three meetings held within days of each other — the virtual UN Global Vaccine Summit on September 22, the Quad summit on September 24 and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session the next day. While declaring that it was once again well placed to produce for the rest of the world, India rightly nudged the US to lift its export curbs on raw material, which had impacted production of vaccines at home when the second wave had peaked. At his UNGA speech, the Prime Minister drew appreciation for committing donation of eight million doses in about a month. India has so far sent out 66 million doses prior to March this year, but was forced to discontinue in the wake of a supply shortage, even as cases and the demand for vaccine surged in the summer months. Meanwhile, the US government and other agencies are financing production in South Africa and India, which will perforce enhance India’s contribution to the world kitty. A situation of domestic shortage amidst ‘exports’ is unlikely to recur, as the supply pipeline looks far better than about six months ago.

Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, makers of Covishield and Covaxin, respectively, are on track to push the country’s vaccine output to above 200 million doses in maybe a couple of months, with Biological E, Sputnik, Novavax (Serum Institute), Zydus Cadila and others contributing to the kitty. As for the domestic requirement, India has given over 860 million doses so far for an adult population of close to a billion, which implies a requirement of another one billion doses at the most to vaccinate its entire adult population twice. Having vaccinated 55 per cent of its adult population once and 24 per cent twice, it is true that India has a long way to go. But given the output scenario and staggered demand, it should be possible to spare about 5 per cent of its output for those countries, particularly in Africa, where only 3 per cent of the population has been vaccinated once. The Quad will likely direct India’s supplies into the Indo-Pacific.

But the hypocrisy of the developed West on vaccine inequity needs to be called out. While about 6.2 billion doses have been administered globally, more than the global adult population, only 20 per cent of the people in low and lower middle income countries have received the first dose. This is even as the US and others are planning a booster shot. What’s worse, according to a study by Airfinity, the G-7 and EU will have one billion more vaccines than they need by the end of 2021, of which 10 per cent are expected to expire. India should step up the pressure on vaccine distribution and tech sharing, while also demanding answers from the WHO on why it has held up clearance for Covaxin.

Published on September 27, 2021

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