By K Raveendran
India’s much-touted role as the ‘pharmacy of the world’ is under threat, thanks to a build-up of negative publicity, partly deliberate and partly spontaneous, on the perceived stoppage of the export of covid vaccines to other countries.
The build-up started with the reported decision by the government to suspense exports in the wake of a sudden spike in the infection rate in the country as well as the need to mobilise enough doses to vaccinate a certain minimum percentage of the population.
The government has since clarified that there is no ban on the export of the vaccine, but this has not helped much to clear the air, with the western nations, which have been a part of the Covax initiative for funding vaccine manufacture for the benefit of poor countries, persisting with their criticism of India’s ‘vaccine nationalism’.
With the vaccination drive at a critical stage as most nations facing a second or third wave of infection with more virulent mutants of the virus, it is doubtful whether the government has managed its global PR properly so as to ward off criticism. All that the external affairs ministry spokesman, clarifying the issue, said was that there is no ban and that India has already made it clear that exports would be undertaken keeping in view the domestic situation.
Among the biggest critics of India’s so-called ‘vaccine nationalism’ is the UK, which has vaccinated half of its citizens at least with one dose, with supplies from India running into several millions of doses. The British stand betrays complete hypocrisy in that it was one of the first countries to oppose temporary waiver of patents by the World Trade Organisation to facilitate maximum production of covid vaccine so that the needy nations, particularly the poor ones, could be provided with enough supplies. The others opposing the waiver included Canada and Brazil. It is quite ironical that these very nations are now asking for more Indian supplies to meet their shortages.
According to the figures released by the external affairs ministry, India has already supplied 64 million doses of vaccine to 80 nations, out of which 18 million doses were by way of the Covax initiative. The beneficiaries include Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, among others. Most of these supplies are from the Serum Institute in Pune, which is the biggest manufacturer of vaccines in the entire world.
The new surge in infection in the country has necessitated a step-up in the vaccination drive. India has so far vaccinated 65 million people, mostly comprising frontline workers and senior citizens aged 60 and above. The country has just announced the third phase of the vaccination programme, in which people above 45 years of age are to be covered and the government has set a target of 250 million vaccinations by July this year. This would necessitate a massive mobilisation of supplies.
Even under the Covax initiative, India, as a poor country, is entitled to a substantial share of the vaccine produced by Serum Institute. As a result, about 10 million doses of the 28 million produced under the Covax initiative have been allocated to India. Serum is learnt to be following the policy of releasing 50 percent for export while supplying the remaining quantities to the domestic requirement.
There is a growing feeling outside India that the Covax initiative has erred in putting almost the entire manufacturing responsibility on Indian companies. But such an arrangement was necessitated by the Oxford University, one of the main vaccine developers, going back on its earlier stated policy of allowing any company anywhere in the world to manufacture its vaccine.
Despite India’s criticism for its alleged vaccine nationalism, the rich nations have been largely responsible for creating supply shortages. They have bought up more supplies than their reasonable requirements at the early stage of their respective vaccination drives, which have limited the supplies available for other countries, particularly the poorer nations.
For instance, countries such as US, UK, Canada, Saudi Arabia as well as the European Union nations are buying up from wherever the vaccines are available. And this has jeopardised the supplies for the poor nations, particularly those in the African continent, where the supply of cheap Indian generic drugs had helped contain major infections, including HIV and H1N1 outbreaks. (IPA Service)