Vaccine diplomacy

| Updated on March 10, 2021

As a key player on the vaccine scene, India should assert its TRIPS waiver position

The world is at an inflexion point with respect to the distribution of vaccines. While the Gavi-COVAX alliance has ensured both remarkably expedient research and availability of vaccines, thanks to a global public-private partnership, it appears that most of these stocks have been cornered by high-income countries. Meanwhile, India, just as in the case of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, has emerged as a global leader of sorts, in both the production and distribution of the vaccine. Data from the Ministry of External Affairs shows that India has distributed about 24 million doses of the vaccine to a host of countries. Remarkably, India has even supplied to Canada — 0.5 million doses were supplied last week and a further 1.5 million has been contracted for. India’s productive capacities seem reasonably placed to meet its own current demand of two million doses a day. Yet, the future market for the vaccine is likely to grow in cycles of six months or less, giving room for US players to licence manufacturing of the vaccine to Indian companies for the domestic market and exports. It is towards this end that the ‘Quad’ (comprising US, India, Japan and Australia) seeks to fund the manufacture of vaccines in India.

India can play a key role in addressing the glaring disparity in the global access to vaccines. About three weeks back, the UN Secretary-General observed that “just 10 countries have administered 75 per cent of all Covid-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, more than 130 countries have not received a single dose.” Clearly, the COVAX-Gavi facility has not lived up to its promise of reaching out to the poorer countries. Amidst this situation, it is striking that US pharma majors should urge the Biden administration to oppose the India-South Africa proposal put forward late last year at the WTO to waive TRIPS temporarily.

India can showcase its vaccine diplomacy by emerging as an independent supplier of low-cost vaccines. Covaxin Phase III trial results have been vetted by the respected medical journal Lancet and it is all set to be approved as a regular vaccine by the approval committee soon. It is notable that countries such as Uganda have paid more per dose than the EU. Backed by more than half the WTO members, India can pull off an encore of the Doha Ministerial (2001), when the public health declaration calling for flexibilities in TRIPS in the event of a health emergency (then, HIV/AIDS) came into being. The battle-lines are drawn on the IPR front — with the C-TAP (Covid-19 Technology Access Pool) facility created by the WHO finding no takers among global pharma companies. The COVAX facility, which will perhaps receive a major boost from the Biden administration, is their vehicle of choice. This is once again a time to reset the rules, going beyond COVAX. The challenge to ensure adequate supplies and even distribution for public health emergencies remains an intractable one, for now.

Published on March 10, 2021

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