Today India rolls out “the world’s biggest vaccination programme”, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it, in its epic combat against Covid-19.
In the new year, as TS Tirumurti – India’s ambassador to the UN – prepared to take his seat in the UN Security Council for a two-year tenure as a non-permanent member, another kind of global security was being concurrently consolidated. VG Somani, the country’s drugs controller general, announced approval for two vaccines made in India for “restricted use in emergency situation.” This cleared the way for the government to provide the much-awaited vaccines at home as well as to the world community.
It marked India’s entry into the exclusive V5 club – the five anti-corona vaccine-producing powers (the US, UK, Russia, China, India) – and reflects an impressive increase in its soft power globally.
The two vaccines approved in India are Covishield, produced by the Serum Institute of India, Pune, in collaboration with Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and Covaxin indigenously developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology. Given the heavy toll already exacted by the pandemic, approval for both was accorded, subject to certain “regulatory conditions”.
The goal is to provide vaccinations to about a quarter of the country’s population rating priority, in the coming months. But while engaged in this momentous exercise, the needs of India’s external partners will not be ignored. Here, the government will astutely balance its internal needs and external requests.
The first category of countries to receive vaccine supplies comprises the immediate neighbours. Armed with MoUs signed in advance, Bangladesh and Myanmar are at the top of the queue. External affairs minister S Jaishankar assured his interlocutors in Colombo that their request for vaccines would be honoured. Nepal has pressed its claim during the visit of its foreign minister. Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan are also assured of a positive response.
The second category includes friendly countries in the extended neighbourhood: West Asia, central Asia and the Indian Ocean region states. Official sources indicate that immediate requests from these two categories may be for 30 million doses. This can be arranged smoothly as the immediate production capacity of Indian companies will touch or exceed 300 million doses in the next six months.
The third category will cover the rest of the world, with the choices to be made carefully in terms of the urgency of need and the nature of relations with India. Countries in Africa and in Latin America will be provided with India-produced vaccines. In view of the specific request made by the president of Brazil, the supply of vaccines is likely to be arranged soon.
There are several striking features of India’s emergence as a major vaccine or vax power. First, countries that routinely accept Chinese goods, technology and funds have confided to Delhi that their clear preference is for an Indian vaccine over a Chinese one. Why? Because India’s pharmaceutical knowhow is considered far more reliable.
Second, India’s constructive role at the World Health Organization and endeavours to strengthen the COVAX initiative are significant. This aims to ensure rapid and equitable access to Covid vaccines to all countries. Funds available under COVAX can be deployed for the export of Indian vaccines to the needy regions.
Third, vaccine production offers to India a rare opportunity to make inroads into global production and supply chains relating to the pharma sector. This comes on the back of solid achievements of Indian companies in recent decades to offer life saving products like the AIDS cocktail, and generic products that are readily accepted in diverse markets. India is the world’s largest exporter of generics, and already has 40% of the US generics market. With some incremental effort, India can rapidly scale up its pharma ecosystem. India’s advantages are innovation, skills, compliance and good production chains.
As Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates pointed out recently, more vaccines are made in India than anywhere else in the world. The leap into the V5 club is laudable, providing a solid base to make India a net provider of global health security.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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