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Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India's great vaccine hunt and COVID diplomacy 2.0

In this episode of Worldview, our Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar takes a look at the Indian government’s great vaccine hunt and other areas of a shift in the focus of Indian diplomacy.

Since the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s diplomatic service has had to shift course - if in 2020, it was occupied with bringing in Indians stranded by the lockdown- or the Vande Bharat Mission, and its plans to export vaccines to 95 countries- the Vaccine Maitri, in 2021, especially after April, its task has been 5 fold:

Hunt for vaccines, medicines, oxygen:

1. While the immediate hunt was for oxygen and medicines--- where new Delhi sent out missions lists of oxygen containers and drugs required, the current hunt is for vaccines

How many vaccines are needed?

Remember, while it is unclear how realistic the goals are, the government has announced it hopes to complete the vaccination of a substantial part of India’s adult population by December- that would mean about 1 billion people or 2 billion doses in the next six months. A major part of these will come from domestic manufacture of Covishield, Covaxin, and possibly Russian made Sputnik. What else are diplomats working on

- The US’s 3 major manufacturers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson have all well regarded vaccines, and negotiations have been underway with them for some months. The problem is that they have held out on certain demands- and the government will have to give in on four points: indemnity, pre-supply Emergency Use Authorisation, Centralised purchasing and advance up front payments.

 

- The US already has a stockpile of about 60 million Astra Zeneca and about 25 million other vaccines that it doesn’t need- and during Mr. Jaishankar’s visit to the US he raised these concerns.

In a call on Friday, US Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi- to discuss details of the US’s plans to distribute its spare vaccines- a stockpile of about 25 million assorted vaccines, and promised about 7 million to 15 Asian countries. This is by no means a lot- but it is all a part of efforts by the government in the last few weeks to increase the procurement of vaccines.

 

- India also wants the US to open up the export of vaccine ingredients, and after the EAM’s visit, we have seen the US agree to prioritise Astra Zeneca vaccines, but not other Indian made vaccines

 

- WTO proposal: While India has procured vaccine deals with Europe, Russia and US, for obvious political reasons, it has not opened conversations with China for Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines However, this week, India chaired a meeting of BRICS ministers that included China, which agreed for the first time to support the WTO’s negotiations for a waiver of Intellectual property rights on all vaccines for the covid pandemic. PM Modi’s pitch of the WTO initiative to European Union however, did not meet with immediate success

2. Damage control for ending vaccine exports:

At the height of the second wave, it seemed only natural that India would stop vaccine exports, given the need within, but this has international repercussions. Remember, between January and April this year, India exported more than 66 million vaccines doses to 95 countries, of which 11 million were grants from India, 35 Mn were commercial exports and 20 Mn were sent as part of the global COVAX coalition commitments. However, Indian manufacturers have many more pending supplies: some of which are part of the COVAX commitments to less developed nations, Africa and South America. And others are to the neighbourhood…including full paid up orders. What is the impact of this:

- Disappointment with India- and possibly a loss of trust in giving Indian companies future orders

- Loss of influence in the region, where India had been seen as the biggest vaccine provider. Today China has shipped supplies to all Indian neighbours other than Bhutan, and the US has now promised to send its surplus stock to every country minus Bhutan so far, but has received direct requests from them.

- Bhutan is a particularly difficult situation- because Bhutan was entirely dependent on India- and has no diplomatic relations with the US Russia or China- India provided the first tranche totalling 550,000, and promised the second, but never delivered- time is running out for them- as second doses are due in June.

- India’s loss will be the gain of other vaccine manufacturing countries

It is left to India’s diplomats to pick up the pieces, and ensure they make amends to each of these countries for the supply chain being stopped.

3. Multilateral diplomacy

On a multilateral level, India’s diplomats have their work cut out as well:

- We spoke about the WTO initiative, which India and South Africa had proposed on oct 2 2020, asking that for a period of 3 years, all Patents and IPs be waived by all countries. In the next few months, we will see how far this goes, given WTO needs a consensus

- Last week, we dealt at length with the Lab-leak theory- did China cover up a laboratory accident which led to the spread of a super infectious virus? And is the US and other countries also involved in funding or conducting what is called Gain of Function research, that manipulates viruses? India, that has faced the brunt of this pandemic has now begun to speak out on the need for a full investigation into the Origins of the virus, and the MEA has now made 3 statements on the issue

- Finally, as a member of the UN Security Council and the Executive board of the WHO, India must be at the forefront of demanding a review of the Bio Weapons Convention of 1972


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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 12:04:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/worldview-with-suhasini-haidar-indias-great-vaccine-hunt-and-covid-diplomacy/article34731400.ece

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